We’ve seen the “Then,” and now for the “Now”…
By far, one of my favorite current-day screenwriters is the late Nora Ephron. She came by writing naturally, seeing as her parents both authored plays, books, screenplays, and the like. Before her death in 2012, she crafted films with deft and memorable dialogue, often collaborating with her sister, Delia. One of the stories the two of them always loved was The Shop Around the Corner, which, of course the Ephrons adapted into the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail. The film is a charming and fun addition to the Parfumerie legacy, as it maintains the structure of the previous two offerings while bringing in new elements.
For those who haven’t seen this movie, it’s the story of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who owns a children’s bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side called The Shop Around the Corner (natch). Kathleen has a loyal clientele and staff who are like family to her, a boyfriend, Frank (Greg Kinnear) who writes for the New York Observer and collects typewriters. She has an adorable studio apartment in a converted brownstone. Still, she can’t wait for Frank to leave for work in the morning so she can log in to America Online and check her e-mail. After hearing those infamous and iconic words, “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” Kathleen opens her inbox to find what she’s looking for: an email from someone named NY152. She begins reading what he wrote about his dog, Brinkley, and about how New York in the fall makes him want to buy school supplies.
Kathleen’s voice fades into Joe Fox’s (Tom Hanks), who is sitting in his much larger and more opulent apartment, drinking orange juice at the kitchen table. His golden retriever follows him in and plops himself down on a gigundo pet bed that has “Brinkley” embroidered on the side. Joe is living with a woman named Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), whose family owns a publishing house, and they aren’t exactly a match made in heaven. Joe tells his friend, Kevin (Dave Chappell), “Patricia makes coffee nervous.” He loves her, sorta, but it seems like he’s biding his time.
Which he is. Like Kathleen, Joe waits until Patricia’s left before he fires up his laptop and makes a beeline for his inbox, where he sees a return e-mail from “Shopgirl.” He reads how she is so happy to get mail from him that she can’t even hear the sounds of New York, and he’s absolutely enchanted.
E-mails aside, there’s still a day to be gotten on with, and Joe and Kathleen have to be out and about. In fact, they pass each other on the street every day and don’t even know it. Both of them go into work looking starry-eyed and not like themselves, and their co-workers start asking questions. “It’s nothing,” they both say.
The idyllic routine is broken up by the approach of a Fox Books superstore a few hunded feet from Kathleen’s store. At first, she’s unconcerned, because superstores are “big, impersonal, and full of ignorant salespeople.” Meanwhile, Joe’s family are the ones opening the store, and they relish taking down independent bookstores like Kathleen’s.
One day Joe is spending the day with his young aunt Annabelle and his little brother Matt, and after going to a street fair, the three of them head to The Shop Around the Corner for story time. Joe tries to stay casual while being evasive about who he is, in spite of Matt spelling “F-O-X” over and over. Things are still slightly awkward for him, though, and he beats a hasty retreat.
Joe and Kathleen meet again at a Thanksgiving party, but he runs the other way before Kathleen can ask him too many questions. One of the other partygoers tells her who Joe really is, and Kathleen is disgusted, so she confronts him. From that point on, the two of them avoid each other as much as possible, whether it’s at the farmer’s market, on the street, or at Starbucks. Kathleen even tries to hide from Joe at Zabar’s, and accidentally gets in the cash-only line, only to be rescued by Joe, who sweet-talks the cashier into letting Kathleen pay by credit.
While all of this is happening, Shopgirl and NY152 are still e-mailing back and forth their various little non-specific bits about their lives, and confiding in each other the insecurities brought on by dealing with, well, each other. As time goes on, though, the Shop around the Corner can’t compete with the leviathan of Fox Books, and Kathleen gets more and more desperate to save her business. She and NY152 make plans to meet at the Cafe Lalo.
The Cafe Lalo scene is the one part of You’ve Got Mail that is a direct nod at The Shop Around the Corner. The scene is almost intact from the original as far as pacing and outcome go–Joe has Kevin peek into the Cafe for him to see what Shopgirl looks like, and Kevin is the one to break it to Joe that Kathleen is Shopgirl. The biggest differences are that the flower is now a red rose and the book is Pride and Prejudice. Just as in Shop, Joe plays it cool and goes in to meet Kathleen. After batting each other around a bit, Kathleen tears Joe a new one by accusing him of being an empty suit. Joe is visibly shaken and makes his exit.
The deviation from The Shop Around the Corner is one of the best aspects of You’ve Got Mail. It’s not a scene-by-scene remake; it maintains the structure of Shop but it really stands on its own in terms of story and dialogue. The Ephrons did the story a good turn by building on it and bringing their own magic. The dialogue is rapid-fire and literate, of course, citing various obscure historical figures like the Luddites and insider causes like freeing Albanian writers, which gives the film a distinctive flavor. The main gimmick of the story–Joe knowing that Kathleen is his secret pen pal but not vice versa–is still present, only NY152 and Shopgirl are able to put things right much more immediately than Klara and Kralik could. In another holdover from Shop, NY152 also allows Joe to gauge when and if Kathleen’s view of him ever changes, and he gives the situation plenty of help, which is hilarious to see.
One of the other things I like about the film is how well it captures Manhattan in the nineties. I was only there once in 1994, on a trip with my parents, but New York is the kind of place that stays with a person forever, and the film brought back memories of the narrow old buildings and colors and sounds of the place. Speaking of colors, the clothes in You’ve Got Mail are just like what I remember seeing on the adults when I was there–lots of simple neutrals such as white, taupe, grey-blue, and black, with the occasional splash of red or purple. Every New Yorker my parents and I met knew immediately that my parents and I were from out of town because we were wearing colors. Who knows how it is nowadays, but that’s what I remember.
Come to think of it, You’ve Got Mail is almost a “Then” movie itself. Simply put, a lot has changed since 1998. Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks don’t make movies together anymore (sigh). Price Club has been swallowed by Costco. AOL isn’t the giant it once was. Dial-up is practically unheard of these days, obviously. Joe and Kathleen would be more likely to meet on social media instead of in a chat room, with the element of surprise eliminated by today’s selfie phenomenon. The big, bad superstore has been all but submarined by Amazon, although Barnes and Noble is still treading water. And let’s not forget Starbucks has raised its prices.
Hollywood has changed quite a bit, too (the recent Harvey Weinstein thing notwithstanding–the casting couch is a disgusting and longtime feature of the entertainment world). I honestly hope You’ve Got Mail isn’t remade in the forseeable future, because I don’t think there are many (if any) screenwriters out there right now who can compete with the Ephron sisters. The bargefuls of complaints from critics and public alike about the lack of character development in today’s movies make that abundantly clear, and this is a story that can’t do without character development. Too many current blockbusters rely on shock value or politics as opposed to dramatis personae. It’s a shame, because this story begs to be updated for a new generation with new technology. Who knows, though–maybe a writer will pop up someday with the right kind of chops.
This film is available on Amazon.