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Movie Extra 9 – You’ve Got Mail

As this fun and informative event (for new readers, this year I’ve been one of ten guest columnists doing movie reviews on the Slice the Life website, with each of us covering a movie from a dozen different categories) rolls towards completion, I find I still haven’t gotten to three of the most basic, and to me, best categories yet – drama, romance/holidays (a bit of an odd pairing perhaps but what’s more romantic than some holidays?) and of course, comedy. Today I’ll check off one of those boxes with one that could easily fall into two of the three above (according to IMDB)… the 1998 Comedy You’ve Got Mail. The cyber-age online romance starred America’s sweethearts of the ’90s, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You couldn’t get much better than that then… unless you added in a golden retriever. Which they did (Brinkley).

It was the third in the triad of romcom movies produced and directed by Nora Ephron, ones which according to journalist Erin Carlson “saved” the entire genre. The two predecessors were When Harry met Sally and another Hanks/Ryan duet, Sleepless in Seattle. I often run into other guys who “hate” romcoms. I don’t; I guess I’m lucky because I’m not suffering when my sweetie wants to put one on for us to watch. But I can see where they are coming from in some cases. The entire genre is over-run with overly predictable and sappy ones where you’re not especially enthralled with either of the pair and the comedy is about as wooden as a canoe paddle. Which is something you end up feeling like you could use when you’re up a certain kind of creek without one as you watch.

The Ephron trio though are something different – witty, reasonably intelligent stories with people you can actually root for. Curiously, the bio of Ephron, I’ll Have What She’s Having, suggests these weren’t her favorite type of story to tell and fell far from her personal, turbulent relationship experiences. But few if any did this type of film better.

For this one, Nora was the primary writer, borrowing heavily from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner for the idea. In the oldie, two co-workers who don’t like each other in the store fall in love with each other through letters they are sending to a pen-pal they never suspect is the other. It starred Jimmy Stewart and Maureen Sullavan. Stewart was America’s favorite “Every Man” at the time, so who better to play the male lead in the new one than the country’s ’90s favorite guy, Tom Hanks? And seeing the chemistry he and Meg Ryan had in Sleepless in Seattle, was their any other choice for the leading lady? I think not, and so too did Ephron who realized Meg was the rarest of rare actresses, one that men found attractive and watchable but women didn’t find sexy or blatant enough to be threatening. Hence, relatable.

In You’ve Got Mail, there are modern twists. Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) aren’t co-workers but business rivals who despise each other. Or at least she despises him. He’s the boss of a large, big-box book store with discount prices and cappucino stands inside (think Barnes and Noble on steroids) while she is the owner of a tiny, well-established childrens book store started by her mother. She knows every kids’ book published and has parties in the shop where she reads stories to the neighborhood children. Her friend Birdie (played nicely by Jean Stapleton who’ll make you forget she’s “Edith” after a scene or two) points out that the store is already in a precarious position financially and the competition from a huge book store could pull them under. Aha! No wonder Kathleen doesn’t like the at-times slightly smug Fox.

She’s in a relationship with a self-absorbed writer while he is tied to an even more self-absorbed, whiny girlfriend. The only real solace either has is anonymous e-mails they send back and forth after meeting in a chat room. They bond over movies and the small pleasures of New York City, he gives her business advice (“Go to the mattresses!”) when she asks him non-specific questions about her struggling store. Of course, in time they decide to meet.

Well, even if you haven’t seen the movie, you can probably guess where it ends up, but how they end up together, how she forgives him for running her out of business is half the fun.

The movie showcased modern techonology (the title for instance was the little audio clip one heard when checking AOL e-mail, which was de rigeur back then) and the perils of the modern world – urban and cyber anonymity, big box stores taking over neighborhoods. The themes still ring true even though the specifics might now seem laughable to young people… who writes long e-mails to each other anymore? And wouldn’t the big box store now be the one struggling to stay afloat, crushed by Amazon? But the basics are as true as ever. Sometimes we don’t know the people in front of us and are too quick to make assumptions about them. There’s a worth in the small businesses, and there’s a trade-off to be made if we simply go to the cheapest or easiest option available. But then again, the large ones aren’t really all that evil.

The movie works to me even though the plotline might have been predictable. The writing is good, the dialog witty and fast-paced without seeming forced or unrealistic, there are a number of good supporting characters to flesh out the film without weighing it down. But first and foremost, it works because there’s some irresistible charm in the pairing of Tom and Meg together. I’ve seen it many a time and I still feeling like giving a little cheer at the end when the dog runs up, Fox appears, Kathleen sees the man of her dreams and sobs “I wanted it to be you!”

You’ve Got Mail… I give it four and a half bouquets of newly sharpened pencils out of five.

Meg Shone But Real Star Was On Sidelines

Some are surprised by the fact but some guys like movies that are fun and romantic more than ones which feature a lot of things blowin’ up. I’m one of those guys, so I don’t mind when my sweetie wants to snuggle up for the evening and put on a classic Romcom movie. Now there were some goofily fun ones made in the ’50s and her beloved Jane Austen wrote works which had the romance if not the comedy part of the equation, some of which have been made into perfectly acceptable period movies. But for me, you can’t do any better in that genre of film than the trio of late-20th Century smashes from Nora Ephron : “When Harry Met Sally”, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” All three had complicated romances, and all three had Meg Ryan as the female lead. Not a bad formula at all.

So I quite enjoyed reading the book I’ll Have What She’s Having, loosely a biography of writer and director Ephron, but more specifically an in depth look at those three movies and how they came about. The Erin Carlson book looks at Nora’s upbringing and her turbulent marriage to Watergate reporter (made heroic in the book and movie All the President’s Men) Carl Bernstein, which itself resulted in the movie Heartburn, and ends by filling us in a little on Ephron’s life after the three movies mentioned as well as those of the main stars. Still the bulk of the book is on the works Carlson says “saved the romantic comedy.”

Whether or not it did that, Nora certainly raised the bar for the type of film and made Ms. Ryan into America’s sweetheart. Whether coincidentally or not, Ryan probably looks the best in the book, generally as nice to be around and as bright as her movie characters. Tom Hanks also comes out looking good, a little reluctant to do so many romance movies but good to everyone on set and a great actor. Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner are seen in fine light… really the only featured person (besides the ever-philandering Bernstein) who isn’t shown to be a joy to be near was Ephron herself. Ephron is depicted as prickly, short-tempered and rather close-minded. However, that might be what made her a great movie-maker. She was also obsessively attentive to detail and had a great sense of dialog and movie pacing. Reading the book, one comes to expect none of the three movies would have amounted to much had it not been for Nora’s vision for them and insistence on certain actors being cast and scenes being shot.

Fans of the three movies will be interested in a lot of the trivia that resulted in them being like they were. An entire storyline cut out of You’ve Got Mail to keep it to under two and a half hours. The iconic “baby fish mouth” in When Harry Met Sally being adlibbed by Bruno Kirby. And of course, the punchline the book got its name from, the classic diner scene in When Harry Met Sally in which prim Sally fakes an orgasm at the table… to Harry’s mortification. Turns out that was Meg’s idea, and Rob Reiner (the director) thought it was brilliant… until he began to sweat when his own mom was brought on set!

However, even if these films aren’t your cup of tea and you prefer ones with a lot of explosions and perhaps heroes in capes, if you’re a fan of Hollywood and films in general, it could be interesting. Carlson details much of the film-making process, and how a so-so script is edited, tweaked and rewritten, sets are searched for and meticulously created, lighting sculpted, the processes of finding the right actor for the roles and much more that would be as applicable to a Marvel adaptation or teen gross-out flick as it would a mature romcom.

A fun and interesting read. I’ll give it 3.5 AOL mailboxes out of five.