You’ve Got Mail isn’t the worst romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, but somebody’s got a screwy idea of love, and I don’t think it’s me. If anyone needs proof that bad screenwriting and directing outweight good costuming and set design, here you go.
WARNING: This review may include spoilers!
You’ve Got Mail continues director/screenwriter Nora Ephron’s attempts to recapture the magic she created in When Harry Met Sally…. Sadly, Ephron appears to bereft of ideas since both this and Sleepless in Seattle were remakes of other, and some would say superior, films.
You’ve Got Mail stars Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly and Tom Hanks as Joe Fox. Ryan plays the same character she always plays in romantic comedies. Kathleen Kelly is a perky, quirky, and generally likable ditz. At the same time, this woman needs to get some standards. Why she falls for someone as caustic and unrepentant as Joe Fox is anybody’s guess. Given how little positive interaction they have before she’s smitten with him, you’d think she could fall for just about any guy with a bouquet of flowers and a few kind words.
Hanks plays a yuppie who is a by turns charming or abrasive without much rhyme or reason. Given his ability as an actor, I have a hard time believing that’s his fault. This script is a monumental clunker, and if anyone needs additional proof check out the extended “152” joke(?) sequence. Hanks and Ryan gamely try to make it humorous, but it’s just one poor attempt after another. You can almost picture Ephron pacing around her apartment thinking “152 what? What sounds funny?”
This is all a terrible shame, because I like romantic comedies as a genre. But this film leaves a raft of issues unresolved, and Ephron clearly isn’t up to the challenge of figuring them out. Jean Stapleton appears here in a pointless role designed, I think, just to give her screen time so that we can remember how great she was in All In the Family. The Big Business vs. Little Business issues are left hanging completely—and since those are central to the main characters’ conflict that’s a pretty big “oops.” All major characters are underdeveloped. Kelly’s bookshop goes out of business without making any efforts at cost-cutting. Fox pushing his way into Kelly’s apartment despite her insistence he leave had an almost stalker-like weirdness to it. The characters dial up AOL and never get any busy signals. Talk about killing an audience’s ability to suspend disbelief!
Ephron’s biggest failure, however, may simply be an inability to understand what it means to love. What is all the skulking around that Fox and Kelly do at the opening of the movie to insure that their significant others don’t find out they’ve got an email relationship going? What kind of trusting relationship have they built with these people? What does that say about the type of people they are?
They’re annoyingly impressed with technology, for starters. As Kelly’s sappy “Ode to Email” voice-over informs us, receiving email drives her to almost orgasmic heights. No offense to my dear friends on the Internet, but God, I wish I felt that euphoric about the electronic messages I receive. It’s not much of stretch to say that Kelly’s more excited about the email she receives than the people with whom she interacts daily. Email is neither that novel or intimate a medium, but you wouldn’t know it to see Kelly’s reaction.
And it’s not like the email she sends and receives is all that great. Hanks and Ryan give it their best shot, but a good portion of the text is just dippy as all get out. Fox’ missive about coffee as liquid confidence, a title heretofore reserved for beer, is not quite as bad as it could have been, but it’s pretty awful nonetheless. I wonder how much Starbuck’s paid for product placement? I wonder the same thing about AOL.
The mixed-bag supporting cast isn’t given a lot to do. I’ve already mentioned Stapleton’s pointless appearance. Greg Kinnear (as Frank) earnestly plays Kelly’s Luddite newspaper columnist boyfriend, and while Kinnear was all right, his character came across—as the movie itself correctly noted—like the Unabomber. That aside, Frank and Kathleen’s breakup is almost wholly implausible. Other minor characters are passable, the script they have to work with is hardly inspiring.
On the brighter side, the costuming and set design were marvelous. But I’ll be darned if that can save a project that needed a better director and a screenwriter who understands the subject matter. After the early promise of the Rob Reiner-directed, When Harry Met Sally…, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Ephron doesn’t “get” romantic comedies. She apparently has no idea what makes love itself work, and until she does, we’re going to get more drivel like this.
Better romantic comedies include: When Harry Met Sally…, The American President, Crossing Delancy, Ever After, Chasing Amy, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Groundhog Day, Notting Hill, Say Anything, Roxanne, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And that’s off the top of my head.