Courtesy Photo
** 120 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, December 18, 1998
Co-written & directed by Nora Ephron

Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear, Jean Stapleton, Dave Chappelle & Steve Zahn


Nora Ephron romanctic comedies are made with a long video life in mind, so this pic might even play better on TV. A good chores movie, you won't miss much by splitting your attention.

Internet-inspired remake relies on director's tired formula

By Rob Blackwelder

In its first ten minutes, "You've Got Mail" covers probably half its budget with unabashed product placements.

The fact that the movie pimps America Online was a given -- this internet-inspired remake of "The Shop Around the Corner" has no cute catch without it. But when Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks conspicuously frequent Starbucks (five or six times in the course of the movie) and make purchases with Visa cards they shamelessly flash in the camera, it's enough to make one stop watching the movie and ask aloud why Warner Bros. still wants my eight bucks.

While this kind of thing really gets on my nerves, I try to overlook it as one of the Hollywood facts of life. But since the product placement is one of the few memorable aspects of "You've Got Mail," it was almost impossible to ignore -- especially since while acting as a barker for the conglomeration of American retail, the movie unconvincingly attempts to extol the virtues of small business.

Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly, the spry and peppy owner of a Lilliputian children's bookstore in Manhattan that is being run out of business by Fox Books, a Barnes and Noble-type chain that has just opened a flagship super-store across the street.

Kathleen laments of her plight nightly in emails to a charming, thoughtful online friend whom she's never met in the real world. As per their agreement to stay anonymous, she writes about her business in vague terms. Even after she runs into Fox Books owner Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) at a party and finds him sarcastic and contemptible, she describes him to her electronic pen pal only as a business rival.

Of course what she doesn't realize, as the online relationship starts to turn romantic, is that her email suitor is, in fact, Joe Fox.

Like "Sleepless in Seattle," Ryan and Hanks last pairing, "Mail" was written and directed by Nora Ephron (who also penned "When Harry Met Sally"), and while this movie is a loose remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 hit with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, it follows Ephron's stock formula religiously.

Character-establishing scenes take place at happy holiday parties in Upper West Side brownstones. Classic movie references double as battle-of-the-sexes pop-culture philosophy (in the past it was "Casablanca" and "An Affair to Remember, this time it's "The Godfather"). Familiar songs on the soundtrack are used to Pavlovian effect when a scene fails to produce the magic the director hoped for.

The entire movie is glazed with syrupy sweet generic moments -- story time at the quaint book store, Joe taking his niece and nephew to get their faces painted -- that clash with the potentially enjoyable, devious grown-up comedy that nearly surfaces as Joe and Kathleen develop a flirty animosity as they continue to run into each other. After Joe figures out that Kathleen is his pen pal, he begins to toy with her by playing his online persona against the flesh and bone Joe she wishes she could hate.

If the whole movie had been as smart and snappy as coffee shop scene in which Kathleen shoos Joe away with sassy zingers while waiting for her mystery man to show up for their first meeting, "You've got Mail" would have been a ball.

But Ephron's tendency as a director to overrun her movies with the terminally cute prevents the story from developing much beyond the gimmick, which comes with some built-in stagnancy since Ephron has to rely on revolving cameras, voice-overs and other embellishments in her attempt to make the reading of email feel more engaging.

This pic is also peppered with many nit-picking problems, like the way the script sidesteps Fox Books' virulent business tactics once the focus switches to romance, and the fact that when the cat is out of the bag, it never occurs to Kathleen to feel used by the manipulative Joe.

"Mail" does boast a fun cast -- including Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear as Joe's and Kathleen's soon-to-be exes, plus Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn ("Out of Sight," "That Thing You Do!") and stand-up comic Dave Chappelle as the stock observant and funny best friends. But stars Ryan and Hanks aren't required to do much beyond conjuring up their trademark screen personas, and while we may have a weakness for her endearing frustration gestures and darling, crooked smile or his perplexed head bob and goofy grin, it's just not enough to carry a movie.

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