Today, it may be a truth universally acknowledged that the internet is Dark and Full of Terrors – but it wasn’t always this way. 20 years ago, Nora Ephron beckoned audiences into a beautiful fantasy world, a world where strangers online could be Tom Hanks waxing lyrical about bouquets of freshly-sharpened pencils, or Meg Ryan describing butterflies on the subway. It was a world where people still asked one another “Are you online?”, because being offline was actually an option. It was an Autumnal New York utopia with nary a neo-Nazi, MRA, or dick-pic brandishing creep in sight – the magical world of You’ve Got Mail.
Written by Ephron alongside her sister Delia, You’ve Got Mail is a loose remake of The Shop Around The Corner, a 1940 romcom starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Itself based on a Hungarian play by Miklós László, the film follows rival shop employees who can’t stand one another, ignorant of the fact that they’re actually each other’s cherished pen pals. A beloved classic, the Ephrons reshaped the story for a newly online 1990s audience. Bickering co-workers Alfred and Klara become business rivals Kathleen and Joe, who meet in an online chatroom (as Shopgirl and NY152, respectively). She’s the proprietor of The Shop Around The Corner, a sweet little independent bookshop she inherited from her mother. He’s the executive of Fox Books, a chain of soulless megastores destined to put her out of business. Letters became emails, Budapest became New York, and the stage is set for one of the ’90s’ last great romcoms.
From the get-go, You’ve Got Mail takes a lot of risks. First of all, our central couple are involved with other people. This isn’t so unusual in a romantic comedy, but Ephron doesn’t do us the usual favour of making them awful, ready-to-hate villains. Frank (Greg Kinnear) may be a bit of a pompous liberal, and Patricia (Parker Posey) may be a hardnosed businesswoman, but they’re not bad people. Add to this the fact that both Kathleen and Joe hide the relationship from their partners, ask friends if email relationships are considered infidelity, don’t even meet for a good half-hour into the film, and that Joe comes from a family of ruthless capitalists hellbent on homogenising the neighbourhood, and you’re left with fairly muddied waters for the start of a romance.
But like any good romcom, the film finds its success with its casting, reuniting Hanks and Ryan for a third time after Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle. Whilst Kathleen Kelly isn’t quite Meg Ryan’s greatest role (that honour surely goes to the iconic Sally Allbright), she brings a trademark scrappy sweetness that reminds us why this sort of role was her forte (and her Email Typing and Reading face-journeys are adorable). Tom Hanks has arguably the hardest job, using his bucketloads of charm to make a palatable romantic lead out of Joe Fox, a character that would be downright villainous if played by virtually anyone else. In the wrong hands, Kathleen and Joe could become respectively saccharine and sinister, but great casting means that straightaway they’re a couple to root for. It’s amazing how much you’re willing to let slide when the central actors are just so damn charming.
The other key component is, of course, that inimitable Ephron script. Perhaps thanks to the comparative newness of the medium at the time of the film’s release, Joe and Kathleen’s messages don’t really read like emails. Consider the first letter Klara sends Alfred in The Shop Around The Corner:
Oh, my Dear Friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.
Compared it with Kathleen’s first email to Joe:
What will NY152 say today, I wonder. I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You‘ve got mail. I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beating of my own heart. I have mail. From you.
The script takes deliberate care to evoke the handwritten letters of the original, allowing the emails to take on their own timeless quality and ensuring the romance isn’t lost, even if the tech seems cold and impersonal. It’s the emails that allow the Ephrons’ writing to shine. Joe and Kathleen discuss everything from The Godfather to Starbucks, all in improbably witty prose that’s a delight to listen to.
Like many cherished films, You’ve Got Mail can falter a little under scrutiny. Kathleen viscerally likens her heartbreak over losing her beloved shop to the bereavement she felt after losing her mother. It’s not only her livelihood that’s been destroyed, but a piece of her soul, one that she intended to pass down to her own daughter. Would she really readily forgive – never mind fall in love with – the man who knowingly helped destroy that? Elsewhere, you may be left pondering the ethics of Joe’s decision to woo Kathleen in the real world after discovering she’s Shopgirl, without revealing that he is in fact NY152. They’re reasonable qualms, certainly. But the film itself is so cosy, the script so witty and the chemistry of its two stars so easy, that they’re easily set aside. After all, there are two types of people in this world: Those who would melt at a heartfelt confession of love penned by Nora Ephron and delivered by Tom Hanks, and liars.
“I would have asked for your number, and I wouldn’t have been able to wait twenty-four hours before calling you and saying, “Hey, how about… oh, how about some coffee or, you know, drinks or dinner or a movie… for as long as we both shall live?”
Today, You’ve Got Mail occupies roughly the same space that The Shop Around the Corner did on the former’s release in the 1990s – quaint, outdated, and looking every bit its age. Watching Kathleen and Joe use dial-up modems to tap out their emails on AOL accounts, we may as well be watching two cave people carve out missives on blocks of stone. But, like handwritten letters, “dated” soon becomes “charming”. The film occupies a weird space by somehow being both incredibly old-fashioned and enduringly relatable. Anyone who’s ever had an internet friend (surely most of us) can relate to the unique ups and downs inherent in such connections. The late-night chats, the agonies of wishing you could help with their daily problems, and the all-important anonymity that allows you to confide in a way you often can’t with real-life friends are all just as relevant in 2018 as 1998 – even if they’re conveyed via chunky laptops instead of sleek smartphones.