Sleepless in Manhattan
Here’s fantasy for you: It’s easy to log on to America Online in New York City. Once there, you will meet the person of your dreams, say, a cute, perky bookstore owner or a charming multimillionaire.
What You’ve Got Mail fails to reveal, in its startling romanticization of e-mail and cyberculture, is that the enchanting person whom you’ve been IMing and e-mailing for the last three months is more likely than not a 45-year-old virgin sitting at a PC in his parents’ basement and typing with one hand. No, the chances are not good that the person to whom you’re revealing your innermost secrets is either Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan.
But so what? You’ve Got Mail works in all the ways that City of Angels — another piece of Hollywood fluff that I recently looked at — didn’t. While Mail is ultimately just as silly and contrived as Angels, Mail avoids the two deadly flaws that sank Angels: its romantic leads are perfectly cast and dripping with chemistry, and it plays up the personality of the city in which it is set instead of fighting it.
Meg Ryan (Anastasia) is Kathleen Kelly, owner of The Shop Around the Corner, a just-as-cute-as-can-be children’s book store on New York’s trendy and affluent Upper West Side. Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump) is Joe Fox, partner in the family corporation that’s responsible for Fox Books, a discount chain. Unbeknownst to each other, Kathleen and Joe are secret e-mail pals — they’ve avoided revealing their names and other identifying information but they share their most hidden inner thoughts. Beknownst to each other, though, is the fact that they are business rivals — Joe is in charge of the new Fox Books that’s opening just around the corner from Kathleen’s shop. The battle lines are drawn: It’s the soulless, cutthroat superstore and the soulless, cutthroat sleaze-in-a-suit behind it versus the independent, service-with-a-smile local shop and its spunky entrepreneurial owner. Meanwhile, Shopgirl (her AOL handle) and NY152 (his) continue to have their electronic heart-to-hearts.
It’s just about too cute for words, but Ryan and Hanks make it work with their charm and very real chemistry. Ryan’s vulnerability and nervous energy was unbelievable in the heart surgeon she played in City of Angels — here it’s perfect in Kathleen (even if seeing her wrinkle her nose in spirited determination is getting a little old), who just wants to make a difference in kids’ lives with storybooks. And Hanks just can’t really be smarmy enough to overcome his winsomeness, which would be a fault if Mail aspired to be anything other than a diverting popcorn flick. A more ambitious film might have seen a sharkier, more indifferent Joe Fox (played by someone other than Hanks) won over by Kathleen’s down-to-earth allure — that victory would have been harder-won but even more satisfying.
You’ve Got Mail is very much a retread of Sleepless in Seattle — the last film to pair Hanks and Ryan — but what ensured I enjoyed it more than I might have was the fact that it can also be seen as a love letter to my hometown, New York City. Where City of Angels tried to overlay Los Angeles with an ethereal, spiritual quality that that city simply doesn’t have (the only movie I’ve ever seen that came close to bestowing a soul upon L.A. is Steve Martin’s wonderful L.A. Story), Mail offers us a fantasy version of New York, the one we’d all like to live in, that only serves to enhance the film’s genuine New York magic. Kathleen lives in a huge, gorgeous West Side apartment that I doubt even a moderately successful businesswoman could afford — even less likely is that her part-time shop assistant, who’s also a student, could afford to live in Manhattan. But then there are stories, mostly shared in Shopgirl’s and NY152’s e-mails, about butterflies in the subway and the appeal of Starbucks that ring true, that capture the seductiveness of New York City. Joe rhapsodizes about how the city in autumn always makes him want to buy school supplies, and how he’d like to give “bouquets of sharpened pencils” to Kathleen. The unlikeliness of Kathleen’s boyfriend, Frank — a journalist and the “greatest living expert on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,” he’s more apt to be the aforementioned 45-year-old virgin than the delightful Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets) — is balanced by a so-New York scene set at Zabar’s, the Upper West Side cathedral of gourmet food, in which Joe rescues Kathleen from an embarrassing situation and a rude checkout clerk.
Of course, Joe and Kathleen end up together, as they must, though their relationship is probably doomed, due to another cyberreality that You’ve Got Mail ignores: Kathleen is a Mac user, and Joe has a PC.