CCNMA: By the book — You’ve Got Mail

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Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT .

Ah, the screechy, chattering whine of a dial-up modem. It’s music to my ears, and music to an entire generation of moviegoers thanks to the pre-Facebook-and-Twitter “Sneakin’ Around” romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail. The first thing in the movie, before Meg Ryan, before Tom Hanks, before even the first letter of the opening credits, is that familiar dawn-of-the-internet melody that became the sound of connection. Who needs a score when you can just dangle a microphone next to a modem port?

The Aren’t We So Computery vibe carries through the title sequence, which involves the camera gliding down into a CAD rendering of New York City that eventually switches from VR to IRL with a shot of a jogger pounding the pavement. It’s not time to settle into the shenanigans quite yet, however, as Greg Kinnear gives full-throated voice to a common refrain from ’80s and ’90s films either primarily or tangentially about the big bad digital revolution: Computers are ruining everything.

If you’re watching the movie to see Hanks and Ryan fall into each other’s cinematic embrace for the third and (so far) final time, then the mini-rant probably doesn’t even register beyond the level of Greg Kinnear said it, I believe it, that settles it. (Big-haired Kinnear was still in the Foxy Locks-y blush of burgeoning stardom, 35 years young, in 1998.) After decrying a PC Solitaire-induced six-week productivity outage in Virginia, suave journalist Frank (Kinnear), dares his shopkeeping sweetheart to name just one thing — one! — that technology has done for mankind.

It’s not the stupidest thing anyone has ever said, but it will do until the next time the House of Representatives opens its mouth, right? Yes, I know, poetic exaggeration, throwaway line, ironic foreshadowing — whatever. It’s in the movie, and it’s right in line with the undercurrent of fear and loathing of — aieeee! — the microprocessor that runs through everything from WarGames to The Matrix.

At any rate, cutie-pie bookseller Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) pooh-poohs Frank’s technophobia, partly because she’s cheating on him with another guy via e-mail. Yes, cheating. The movie blows this off in a no-big-deal, she’s-with-the-wrong-guy, no-harm-no-foul sort of way, but the plain truth of the matter is spelled I-N-F-I-D-E-L-I-T-Y. The guy on the other end of Kathleen’s space-age tin can telephone is Joe Fox (Hanks), also a cheater — the movie excuses Joe because his own live-in lover is a shrill, conniving diva — and also a huckster of the printed word. Awww.

The flirty lovebirds exchange their nostalgic, uncannily articulate missives via America Online, which used to be a thing that did not require further explanation. Nowadays, Aol. as it’s known is a publicly traded something-or-other that no longer bombards people’s actual mailboxes with unwanted subscription CDs and no longer invites (most) people to check their virtual mailboxes with the neighborly phrase that constitutes the movie’s title. In 1998, however, America Online was hip, happening and not at all an unlikely purveyor of Cupid’s e-mail arrows.

(Incidentally, while most movie watchers claim Sleepless in Seattle and I have a soft spot for Joe vs. the Volcano, You’ve Got Mail is probably the pinnacle of the Hanks-Ryan trifecta. Both actors are feelin’ the romantic/comedic energy, and the pacing is just about perfect.)

The elevated banter between “Shopgirl” and “NY152” keeps cyberspace humming while Joe and Kathleen unwittingly cross paths, then meet in earnest, then decide to more or less mutually detest each other. Oops! It turns out that Joe is no humble schmoe, but heir to the megalithic Fox Books empire (think Barnes & Noble) that stacks ’em deep and sells ’em cheap at discount superstores, while Kathleen provides exquisite personal service and charges full price at her homey little Shop Around the Corner (the name of the store is the title of an earlier film adapted from the same source material, a stage romance penned by Hungarian-American playwright Miklos Laszlo).

Of course, as any number of other movies have proven, mutual disgust is no impediment to true love. Joe gets the upper hand by sorting out the true identities of NY152 and Shopgirl when the couple makes its first attempt to tear away the online shroud that cloaks their amore in mystery. He’s hurt by Kathleen’s unambiguous rejection of him — they become foes in a public business feud — but keeps the online fires burning and e-mail eventually writes a happy ending. When Shopgirl and NY152 do finally reach out and touch each other, the moment is worth the wait.


TUNE IS BUSTIN’ OUT ALL OVER: Plenty of other movies do it, too, but You’ve Got Mail has got pop musical filler up to here. Director Nora Ephron clearly never met a bouncy ditty she didn’t like, and the movie has more montages and bridges than some entire television series. The film has barely begun when Joe and Kathleen take their separate paths to work accompanied by the Cranberries canzonet “Dreams,” and there’s at least one musical cue every five minutes after that.

BIG RIVER: Most movies are artifacts of their time, but there’s a particularly amusing flashback in You’ve Got Mail to a specific commercial clash that’s barely remembered anymore. In the movie, Joe’s Fox Books stands in for the arms race between Borders and Barnes & Noble, while Kathleen’s Shop Around the Corner is the face of the mom-and-pop independent booksellers who bravely carried on in the shadow of the giants. It was all very up-to-the-second at the time. Of course, the movie has no hint of the eventual victor in the high-stakes book sales brouhaha. The end of the story is that then-fledgling quickly outstripped both models — an outcome that few would have predicted in 1998.

MAYBE IT’S ME: You’ve Got Mail never really circles back around to its “pox on technology” beginning, but there is a wistful (and insightful) semi-rebuttal in one of Kathleen’s notes to Joe, mid-film: “Do I live a small life because I love it, or because I haven’t been brave?” That’s right, people. Don’t fear the 01110010 01100101 01100001 01110000 01100101 01110010.

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Chip Hartweir


CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard within arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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