You've Got Mail Is Proof That Rom-Coms Don't Need Reinventing

Photo: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock.
Of all the scenes in You’ve Got Mail — each of which I could recite verbatim if asked (no one has) — the one I remember most fondly is Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), her boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear), and fellow Shop Around The Corner employees gathered around her piano singing “The Instrument Song.” You have to take some creative leaps before you can get on board with it — the first being that you’d choose to spend Christmas with your coworkers. But when I first watched the Nora Ephron classic in college with my own boyfriend and small circle of friends, the idea of a group of 30-somethings assembling in earnest to improvise an Australian folk song was a whimsical promise of what adulthood could be like.
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I made a plan: I’d also move to New York (“To Brooklyn!”); I’d work a job I loved; I’d continue to nurture the same group of friends; and 10 years later we’d all find ourselves around a similar piano. But, as You’ve Got Mail will teach you, things change.
The 1998 film is, on the surface, a story about love. Kathleen Kelly, a wholeheartedly good small bookstore owner, and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a fundamentally bad big bookstore owner, should have never fallen in love. And yet. Unknowingly having chatted anonymously online for months (under the pseudonyms “Shopgirl” and “NY152”) , the two develop an unlikely affection that doesn’t manifest in real life until the very, very end of the story. But to reduce You’ve Got Mail to just the romance between Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox would be doing the film a disservice.
It is, above all, a story about accepting change. Kathleen Kelly, who took over her mother’s small bookstore, suddenly finds that she has to close it thanks, in large part, to Joe Fox’s book superstore sucking away all her business. Most of their time on screen together is spent in anger, oblivious to their online tryst. When Joe later discovers that Kathleen is the woman with whom he’s been emailing, his initial reaction is to use the upper hand to torment her. But then, he changes. Their shared realization that the person behind the prejudiced assumptions they had of each other is, actually, good, is what makes the movie’s happy ending palatable.
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Most of the emotion in the film comes from that tension. There’s a back and forth between big business and small, between who you think someone is and who they really are, and — luckily for our protagonists —who someone is and who someone can be. Kathleen and Joe come together when they (and we) see past the things that make them different and accept the things that have changed: The Shop Around The Corner is closing. Fox & Sons Books is taking over. Even the You’ve Got Mail website, which remained untouched up until as recently as 2016, now redirects to an impersonal tab on the Warner Bros. website. Life goes on.
The casting itself was a marker of time passed, reuniting Ryan and Hanks five years after their chemistry in Sleepless In Seattle stole hearts (in the one minute of screen time they actually share). Hanks is older; Ryan’s hair is shorter, but that warm fuzzy feeling is familiar — and that’s the movie’s key. While You’ve Got Mail is a story about change, what endures, 20 years on, are the timeless depictions of emotion, prejudice, and overcoming failure.
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When I first watched You’ve Got Mail, I knew my own period of change was approaching. In the ensuing years, I’d move states, end relationships, and change jobs more times than I could count in the transition from college to “real life.” When Kathleen found herself in a similar upheaval, it was the full embrace of a new chapter that propelled her forward. She ended things with Frank, closed the bookstore before things got worse, and started a career as a children’s book author. Plus, there was her online pal NY152, a comforting sounding board during a time of great change. For me, there was You’ve Got Mail itself, always a few clicks away and a reminder of what can happen on the other side of change.
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Through the magic of Nora Ephron’s writing, somehow a 1998 movie based on a 1940 movie updated only with the newfangled technology of email has managed to not feel dated in the 20 years since its release. While the chime of “You’ve Got Mail” in the film’s first few minutes may evoke some laughs, and the clacking of computer keys acts as a type of nostalgic ASMR, the slow smile that spreads on Kathleen’s face the first time she meets Joe (before he’s “Joe Fox,” just “Joe”) has never been more familiar. At one point or another, we’ll all have to say goodbye to something we naively thought would last forever. Each passing year still sees beloved institutions closing down at the mercy of the Next Big Thing, awkward first dates after meeting online, and — perhaps most bizarrely — Dave Chappelle appearing in the role of “best friend” when you least expect it. In fact, with just a few tweaks, the story of You’ve Got Mail could play out in 2018 quite easily.
“The city changes and life changes,” Ephron told actress Heather Burns during filming, who plays Christine. “And you’re gonna get used to that one day.”
I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m not the same person I was when I first watched this movie five years ago. The plans you make for yourself when you’re 20 won’t have necessarily have panned out at age 25. The goals I have for my 30-year-old self will likely look wildly different by the time I’ve gotten there. I wonder what other stores will have closed in that time, what publications I’ve loved will no longer be running, what the industry of words and stories will look like after it’s been weathered by five more years.
But how lucky are we that, for 90 minutes, The Shop Around The Corner is still standing! The white dust outside the bagel shop never seems to settle. A butterfly is riding the subway. That caviar! Is a garnish! Like Kathleen with Pride & Prejudice, I too am always in agony over whether or not the two protagonists will get together in the end. Thank God, they always do.
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