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You've Got Mail is a
2 hour advertisement for AOL 1998 romantic comedy featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It was directed by Nora Ephron. Sisters Nora and Delia Ephron co-wrote the script. The Ephron sisters admitted they were updating Parfumerie, a theatrical play by Miklós Lászlo (1903-1973) for a new generation. Naturally it is also related to The Shop Around the Corner, a 1940 film adaptation of the same play.
Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) are both active in the New York bookstore scene, but at very different levels. Joe is a high-ranking executive for "Fox Books", an ever expanding chain of bookstores. Kathleen runs "The Shop Around The Corner", a small independent bookstore, inherited from her mother. As she keeps losing customers to Fox Books and in danger of going bankrupt, Kelly starts a public campaign against the chain. Naturally Joe and Kathleen's relationship is adversarial.
Meanwhile the two are involved in rather unsatisfying romantic relationships and feel lonely. They search for pen pals over the Internet. Fox uses the screen name "NY 152", Kelly goes by "Shopgirl". They soon become friends and soon become courting over the Internet, each unware that their respective new love interest and business rival are the same person.
The film was a box office hit, its total lifetime gross estimated to $250,821,495. With about $116 millions earned in the United States alone, it was the 14th most financially successful film of its year. While the plot was hardly original, the film gathered rather positive reviews due to the chemistry between its leads, its often witty dialogues, quirky supporting cast, and somewhat realistic take on the plight of small businesses going under.
The film provides examples of:
- Beam Me Up, Scotty: In-universe; in a realistic touch, Joe quotes The Godfather off-hand to Kathleen, but misquotes it as "I didn't know who you were with." It's actually "You should've told me your boss was Corleone."
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Between the two leads, obviously.
- Big Applesauce
- Black Best Friend: Funny in that Dave Chappelle once passed up playing Tom Hanks' best friend before, in a slightly more popular film. Perhaps an upgrade since this role lacks the Uncle Tomfoolery that Paul Mooney said Chappelle was hesitant about with the Bubba role.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: What Joe is supposed to be. Later inverted as he is actually a nice person.
- Although he does sometimes have an arrogant streak about his business (especially the first time he converses with Kathleen after she finds out he's of Fox Books), he is also aware enough to admit that it's something he doesn't like about himself.
- Chick Flick: Unashamedly so.
- Cool Old Guy: Joe's father lives on a boat, makes Manhattans and gives his son free relationship advice.
- Dating Service Disaster: A big part of the plot.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Joe has to convince Kathleen he's not a horrible person offline.
- Drink Order: Joe Fox will have a Stoli; Kathleen Kelly will have white wine.
- Fictional Counterpart: Fox Books is clearly a stand-in for Barnes & Noble, and the way it forces Kathleen's bookshop out of business is based on the real-life 1996 closure of a small Upper West Side bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., following the opening of a B&N branch in the same neighborhood.
- "Funny Aneurysm": Fox Books forced out of business a small bookshop and probably just like Barnes & Noble is fighting losing battle against Amazon and digital shops right now.
- George Lucas Throwback: A wholly uncynical and innocent movie about romance. A throwback to Hollywood's Golden Age of fluffy romance films, featuring no villains, all nice people, witty dialogue, a lot of supporting roles, and the movie's conclusion is never in doubt.
- Pair the Spares
- Pet the Dog: Literal example: Joe Fox has a dog and he meets Kathleen while walking it.
- Playing Against Type: Steve Zahn and Dave Chappelle play low-key comic relief as opposed to their more over-the-top roles.
- Precision F-Strike: Joe goes on a tirade about how the news edited his interview rather unfavorably compared to Kathleen and shouts "Shit!" in the fitness club in quite possibly the film's only use of swearing.
- Predatory Business: Played straight at first, since Fox Books does drive the family bookstore into bankruptcy. Subverted later. The megacorp is offering cheaper goods, but it still serves the community for the better, as can be seen when Meg Ryan is walking around the store, noticing that groups of adults and children alike are scattered around reading books and having fun. Even though one employee that didn't know about the "Shoe" books, there's no indication that they are selling cheap material or using dirty business practices. As Tom Hanks said, "I sell cheap books. Sue me."
Roger Ebert: "The movie is sophisticated enough not to make the megastore into the villain. Say what you will, those giant stores are fun to spend time in."
- Shout-Out: The name of Kathleen Kelly's store, "The Shop Around The Corner", is a deliberate reference to the 1940 movie.
- Tom Hanks' character constantly refers to The Godfather as the "I Ching" of manly wisdom and quotes extensively from the film. He inadvertently teaches Meg Ryan the meaning of the phrase "Go to the mattresses" - go to war with your enemies - which she promptly uses to declare war on Hanks' store chain.
- Another, more subtle shout-out is the Kathleen's statement that she loves Pride and Prejudice, which also features the "enemies becoming a couple" plot. It's also the book that she brings to their disastrous "first" meeting.
- Technology Marches On: This being a film where people use computers in 1998, you will of course hear the sounds of dial-up modems connecting to America Online 4.0 (released that summer) on laptops that, compared to Netbooks and even tablets today, look incredibly bulky. In addition, the use of instant messaging, chat rooms, and email, rather revolutionary at the time, are now rather overshadowed by the rise of social networking, audio/video chat, and text messaging on mobile phones. The anonymous pen pals premise might be a tad harder to pull off today in comparison.
- More early-AOL residue: During the one sequence using Instant Messenger, both characters type in far more into the windows than what most people do today, who prefer to break up long blocks of text across several IMs.
- Throw It In: Tom Hanks ad-libbed the line after he accidentally closed the door on the balloon (where he frees the balloon then adds on the way out, "Good thing it wasn't the fish!").
- Unintentional Period Piece: This movie fairly well screams 1998.
- What Do You Mean It's Not Heinous?: While Kathleen and Joe are having a tiff at a dinner party (shortly after Kathleen finds out he is the part of the Fox Books hierarchy), he nonchalantly scoops some caviar off a dessert plate onto his own. Kathleen is offended by that ("That caviar is a GARNISH!"), prompting Joe to look her in the eye and wordlessly put more caviar on his plate.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Kathleen to herself. When she finally musters the confidence and the ability to zing and insult Joe at the coffee shop, she at first feels enlightened but later expresses regret and guilt about being "cruel" in an email to "NY 152".
- Joe simultaneously goes through the same thing after realizing he stepped over the line by needling her while also not revealing himself as her pen-pal. In his e-mailed apology in response, he tells her not to feel too guilty because it was "provoked and maybe even deserved." This starts the turning point in both characters easing up on their hostility towards the other and it all works out in the end, of course.