Somewhere in Los Angeles, Nora Ephron sits in front of her television set, VCR whirring away, a pile of videocassettes resting beside her. Her hands greasy, an empty bag of chips is wedged between the couch cushions. In her cathode haze, eyes glazing over, eventually something will strike her fancy. She watches long into the night, waiting to find the filmthe film that she can use as fodder for her next project.
A gasp. Some notes are hurriedly scribbled in the dim light as images of Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan cross the screen.
It worked once, dammit, and it can work again!
Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner was a delightful, if slowly paced, 1940 comedy of manners about two lonely hearts who correspond lovingly with one another through letters. Unbeknownst to them, they bicker throughout the day as co-workers. The idea’s been reworked a thousand times and, by now, sounds as trite as “Three’s Company” or “Saved By The Bell.” Under the control of a master filmmaker like Lubitsch and his stellar cast, however, it works. In the greasy hands of Nora Ephron, it doesn’t.
In Ephron’s film, Tom Hanks plays the Jimmy Stewart role and Meg Ryan acts as Margaret Sullavan. Instead of being co-workers with personality conflicts they are business rivals. Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, heir to the multigenerational Fox Books (think Barnes & Noble) empire, sired by Schuyler Fox (John Randolph) and made prosperous by Nelson Fox (Dabney Coleman in full 9 To 5 mode). Fox is set to open a new branch on the West Side of Manhattan where he’s destined to crush the competition. That includes Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly, second-generation owner of the quaint children’s bookstore, Shop Around The Corner, where she knows all of her customers by name, of course.
Meanwhile, the irony is that Fox and Kelly have begun an e-mail correspondence where they refuse to divulge any details about their personal life. Instead, they exercise their abilities to write effusive prose poems and pseudo-intellectual drivel about New York; each of them dishing it out and eating it up with a spoon, hungrily awaiting that next note. Oh, speak to me of bouquets of sharpened pencils!
Instead of referring to the characters as “Fox” and “Kelly,” I might as well just call them “Hanks” and “Ryan” for it’s a rare movie where these two actors break out of their traditional on-screen personas. Ryan continues playing her one-note kooky leading woman that she’s perfected in French Kiss, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and I.Q., who finds it necessary to deliver half of her dialogue with her eyes closed.
With the opening of Fox Books, if you can’t see the “corporate America versus the little guy” theme coming, don’t worry because Ephron will hit you over the head with it a few dozen times. Oddly enough, Ryan’s character is the champion of all things corporate. Instead of going to a small indie coffee shop, she stands behind Hanks in line at Starbucks. Instead of signing up with a smaller internet service provider, she’s a customer of the America Online behemoth. Instead of going to Film Forum or the Angelika, she’s more at home at the Sony multiplex. When Ryan finally steps into Fox Books, she might as well say, “Gee whiz, corporate America isn’t so evil after all. The clerks may need a little educating but the kids are happy.” She looks as pleasant as the lobotomized McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (And, oh, how I’d love to put a pillow over her face.)
How can the audience sympathize with a character fighting “big business” while the director gives us no reason to find fault with any of it? Hanks may poke a bit of fun at Starbucks (“The whole purpose of places like Starbuck’s is for people with no decision making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee”) but that doesn’t stop him from getting his daily fix at the coffee shop that has come to symbolize the homogenization of America; an ideal that Ephron openly celebrates! Even after Shop Around The Corner folds, Ryan doesn’t seem particularly upset with anything except, perhaps, frustration with Hanks’ “I-told-you-so” attitude.
The “omniscient” Hanks has learned that it’s Ryan to whom he’s been writing and uses this knowledge to manipulate her. Do you hear that sound? Yes, it’s the familiar sound of Nora Ephron pounding yet another nail into the coffin of Feminism.
In addition to supporting patriarchy, large commercial operations, and chain stores, Ephron also applauds technological gadgetry. Ryan’s boyfriend, newspaper columnist Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear) is a typewriter enthusiast who loathes computers (“Name me one thing-one!-that we’ve gained from technology!”). For this, he is chided as being a “weirdo” and compared to the technophobic Unabomber.
Oh, did I forget to mention that while Ryan and Hanks’s letter writing is going on that they are both involved with other people? Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were single in Shop Around the Corner and I imagine Van Johnson and Judy Garland were as well in the first remake of Lubitsch’s film, In the Good Old Summertime. Ephron must have been focusing on the “shop around” aspect of the title as she continues to show her penchant for infidelity. Let this be a warning! If you’re slightly odd or boring and going out with Meg Ryan, you might as well kiss your sweetie goodbye because someone-most likely Tom Hanks-is going to come and take her away.
There are no messy break-ups in You’ve Got Mail, however. Instead, we see the world’s second mutual break-up (the first taking place on “Seinfeld”) between Kinnear and Ryan. Meanwhile, Hanks’ father is nonplussed when he visits his son after breaking up with his fiancée. It seems that along with the elimination of “mom & pop” stores, the disintegration of the nuclear family is to be rejoiced as well.
Ephron has been trying desperately for the last few years to recapture the success of When Harry Met Sally (the poster art for Sleepless in Seattle was nearly identical), but that was helmed by a real director, Rob Reiner (his recent work not withstanding). The earlier film also had some believable conflict between the characterscutesy Meg Ryan had a good counterpoint in acerbic Billy Crystal instead of the white-washed Tom Hanks (who replaces cynicism with whining).
More than Shop Around the Corner, You’ve Got Mail takes cues from When Harry Met Sally. Take, for example, the nearly identical scene in which Greg Kinnear meets Hanks’ girlfriend Patricia Eden (Parker Posey) at a party. Like Jess (Bruno Kirby) in When Harry Met Sally, Kinnear is flattered by Hanks’ girlfriend, as she is familiar with his work. Posey doesn’t go so far as to quote an article to Kinnear-as Marie (Carrie Fisher) did to Jess-but she comes damn close.
Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, and all of the other members of the supporting cast such as Steve Zahn, Jean Stapleton, and Dave Chappelle are completely wasted in their roles. When they all disappear for the last act of the film, they aren’t really missed.
Hanks and Ryan are meant for each other and for this film. Their characters and their letters are as lacking in substance as everything else in You’ve Got Mail. The film is without the wittiness and sharp dialogue of Lubitsch’s work (except for the parts Ephron pilfered line by line) and leaves You’ve Got Mail as soulful as a Marvin Hamlisch tune and as deep as a coffee commercial. Instead of making You’ve Got Mail a 119-minute trailer for Shop Around the Corneras Sleepless in Seattle was for An Affair to Rememberit is more a pitch for Starbucks, AOL and the film’s soundtrack (my speakers were in danger of blowing out when The Cranberries came on early in the film.)
Now the question becomes; what movie shall Nora Ephron malign next? Will someone stop her before she strikes again? Or, will she continue unhampered on her spree, destroying classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age by “modernizing” and cheapening them: robbing them of their souls and leaving vapid trash in her wake?