Why Modern New Yorkers (and Everyone Else) Need “You’ve Got Mail”


On a late weeknight, I snuggled up in my bed and put a well-worn DVD in my laptop’s drive.  The romantic tour-de-force that is the late Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail began, this viewing comfortingly starting the same way my countless past viewings have – with the cackling sound of dial-up over a strange CGI map of New York City.  I proceeded to pay the film the kind of attention one normally pays to a movie seen innumerable times, quoting whole dialogues without having to look at the screen, the actors’ expressions seared into memory.  Myriad household tasks have been completed to the sweet soundtrack of You’ve Got Mail.  But I have also viewed it thoroughly, with rapt attention, many, many times.  It is one of those magical movies about romance and forgiveness and a city being a third party in a relationship, and I know just as many men who genuinely like it as I do women.

With technology moving at warp speed these days, I have noticed more and more beloved movies slipping into an abyss of plot implausibility.  Not because of physical impossibilities or run-of-the-mill plot holes created by bad writing, mind you, but because whole plots of beloved films of yore are driven by something no longer in use or problems easily solved nowadays.  You’ve Got Mail is one of those movies.

Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) begin the film as two strangers both in flaccid relationships who chat with each other online (more specifically, over AOL e-mails).  We catch up with them well into their nameless, faceless relationship; as Kathleen says to Joe over e-mail, in a convenient bout of exposition, “I like to start my notes to you as if we’re already in the middle of a conversation. I pretend that we’re the oldest and dearest friends – as opposed to what we actually are, people who don’t know each other’s names and met in a chat room where we both claimed we’d never been before.”  They live and work in the same Manhattan neighborhood and are both in the book business – Kathleen inherited her mother’s children’s bookstore, and Joe, along with his father and grandfather, operates a Barnes & Noble-esque chain of bookstores.  They quarrel in real life as his business threatens hers, while they fall further and further in love on the computer, with him offering her business advice as well as the courage to speak her mind to her adversaries, unbeknownst to both of them that she is wielding his own training against him.  Eventually, he finds out that she is his online love and, after a shaky period in which all seems lost, he finds the resolve to make her fall in love with him in real life.  Which, of course, she does, beside a garden at 91st Street in Riverside Park, while “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” plays and the words THE END flash across a perfectly blue sky.

This film was the third partnership of Hanks and Ryan, following 1992’s Sleepless in Seattle (also an Ephron film) and the lesser-known 1990 flick Joe Versus the VolcanoSleepless, I would argue, is the sappier of the two later rom-coms, entertaining of course, and satisfying in the way that a late-night microwave pizza can be – a little cheap and cheesy, but also savory and, when the time is right, completely called for.  Sleepless combines the dated meet-cute methods of the early 90’s (she hears him over talk radio, women write him letters, she hires a P.I. and then stalks him – adorable) and a hefty chunk of fate the viewer must swallow down to believe that two strangers from across the country are supposed to be together so serendipitously.  Ryan is neurotic in a cute enough way to pull off the role, Bill Pullman, as her poor abandoned fiancé, is just vanilla and pathetic enough to actively root against, and Hanks does what he does best, being completely appealing in his down-to-earth, guy-next-door,  widowed-father, cute-but-not-classically-handsome way.

You’ve Got Mail has moments that imply fatefulness, but in a far subtler way than its predecessor.  In the opening sequence, set to the oh-so-appropriate late-90’s soundtrack of “Dreams” by the Cranberries (full disclosure: when I listen to this song while walking around Manhattan, I secretly hope my Joe Fox is somewhere nearby), the two main characters constantly miss each other, one walking out of Starbucks while the other is walking in, being on different sides of the same street, etc.  There is absolutely nothing to suggest these two aren’t meant to be, but we’re spared Sleepless’s mother-daughter speeches about magic and the phrase “MFEO: Made For Each Other.”

The way that Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox meet and fall for each other speaks to something relatable for the modern city-dweller, and yet harkens back to a pure time long past.  First of all, we no longer have to span the country to find our true loves, as we did way back in 1992; turns out, now, much more comfortingly, they are just around the block.  The two main characters meet online, in a chat room, back when that was a newer forum for socializing.  Sure, back then some people used chat rooms to lure underage teens, but this movie points out what essentially started our need for online connection.  It exhibits the genesis of what has become the now far less stigmatized, often more practical, far more commonplace world of online dating.  They were not talking to hook up, not looking for a serious relationship (they already had significant others), and they were not isolated from an interesting community of people from which to seek friendship – they did it because they wanted to talk to somebody.  And this is a too-true need that often gets buried under the current line between the real world and the Internet, especially in terms of romantic relationships.  In 1998, Ephron, through these characters, was exploring loneliness, companionship, and desire through a brand-new medium, telling a tale as old time over the horrid sound of dial-up (the movie is actually a semi-remake of an old film called The Shop Around the Corner, in which the characters handwrite letters).  What makes it great is that something like two strangers falling in love anonymously doesn’t seem like a fateful turn of a fairytale anymore, but a reality made plausible through modern technology, because sixteen years later, the proof is in the pudding: this is how people who end up marrying meet, through a portal without which they might have never known each other (or, in this movie’s case, would have known but hated each other).  There is now an entire industry – an entire online world – devoted to introducing strangers to each other.  This is fate’s modern, more convenient incarnation.

Regarding the film, Ephron remarked that she believed that the romantic leap of faith the audience had to make was that two people could fall in love just through their writing.  In the Internet age, I find this a less difficult pill to swallow.  Not only do I often observe people on Tumblr declare their undying love to total strangers who write brilliant text posts or make awesome gifsets (Tumblr users often become friends IRL), but I can say from experience that, when looking at a potential… whatever’s dating profile or Facebook, their writing is what really comes across of their personality, what pulls me in or repels me when I cannot actually physical interact with them (bottom line: please, grown men with agency over your online personas, do not use “lol” as a mark of punctuation).  So yes, Madame Ephron’s Ghost, I would say that it is possible to fall in love, or at least be attracted to someone, over the internet, just based on silly messages – the 21st century has Catfish as proof.

Today, even if we were totally honest online and were just seeking out someone to talk to so as to break up the jaded monotony of everyday life, we would have the other person’s whole life at our fingertips with a simple search; at the very least, in most cases, we’d see a grainy picture.  This, along with the fact that the characters are communicating over AOL e-mail (and Instant Messenger one time), dates the film significantly and shoves it down into the darkness of plot-problem-instantly-solved.

Another facet that makes watching You’ve Got Mail so enjoyable in 2014 is the view we glimpse of New York City – specifically the Upper West Side – and the lives of its inhabitants back at the end of the millennium.  Though it’s not a looming shadow over the viewing experience, one knows that September 11th hasn’t happened yet in the microcosm one is watching.  Romantic movies set in NYC and other major cities still fall into that same dominion that they always did of Love Being The Only Important Thing; terrorism, widespread paranoia, and heightened national security don’t ruffle that (best example: the little kid bypassing all Heathrow security, without consequence, in Love Actually).  But regardless, I watch Hanks and Ryan spar in and bond over a city that has yet to experience its worst crisis, and that immediately gives the impression that this, what you are watching, is past, calm before a storm.  You kind of envy those New Yorkers, who haven’t yet been shaken so irreparably.

The first time I viewed the film, I was years away from living in New York City.  In the DVD commentary, Ephron points out that one of her main goals was humanizing the forbidding, overwhelming Big Apple (remember, this was just post-Giuliani clean-up, and New York was just starting to be known as a “nice city”; the same year that You’ve Got Mail came out, Sex and the City debuted and glamorized the place for all those off of the island of Manhattan).  She wanted to depict a true neighborhood, and at the time, I thought she was a great writer and director for pulling off such a trick (she couldn’t fool me!  I had seen Times Square and I knew New York was a scary, shiny shithole).  Little did I know that she was just highlighting the true nature of the Upper West Side, how it so often feels like an oasis in the midst of a restless desert – look, families!  A park!  TWO parks!  Quietness!  New Jersey, way over there on the other side of the river!  The UWS is still like this, but much like its peek into the future of online dating, You’ve Got Mail probes what was then a sleeping baby monster: the sweeping capitalism of chain stores slowly taking over a place as compact and diverse as NYC.

The IRL part of the plot deals extensively with the existential struggle of both the business owner and consumer regarding Mom-and-Pop Shop vs. The Big Bad Chain Store.  In the end, before all the romance sweetens the journey, we watch Ryan fail.  She is a purer character than Hanks in terms of the quality of her business and her genuine belief in what she is doing, but she doesn’t win.  She rallies, she fights valiantly, and then she just closes the store her mother ran and left to her.  Her loyal customers rush to aid her, but in the end, everything about a store like Borders – ahem, I mean, Fox Books – is, admittedly or not, more convenient and less expensive than a spot like the Shop Around the Corner (even one of her employees deflects, off-screen, to work at Fox Books).  Over the past sixteen years we have watched this war play out, from seeing chains of the same store spread out over a small number of blocks, to hipsters fighting back with shops and eateries out in the now-civilized wilds of Brooklyn and Queens, to even now when, most potently in this particular context, stores exactly like Fox Books are shutting down because of the rise of the Internet and the e-book (oh, there’s something so delicious about how this movie’s plotlines all ended up tangled in a modern heap).  This is something that has plagued (or blessed, depending on how you look at it, or feel that day) the whole world, but in New York it’s a near-political matter.  If you haven’t, as a young inhabitant, had your love of the city momentarily squashed by someone older telling you that New York used to be way grittier and dirtier and better – to borrow an oft-used, oft-annoying phrase – you’re not a real New Yorker.

The funniest part in all of this is how Starbucks is treated in film.  Chain bookstores are raging beasts crushing the hardworking masses beneath them, but freakin’ Starbucks is the delightful neighborhood coffee shop where, as Hanks points out in an oh-so-delightful e-mail, people, through their necessarily complicated orders, receive “an absolutely defining sense of self.”  (I’m ignoring, in this observation, how product placement features heavily in the film, as it did in many films of the era; I naively didn’t pick up on that for most of my viewing life of the movie, and I think it speaks to a completely different argument that is more about movies as vehicles themselves and not the nuances of their plots.  One can, however, use the movie to make similar observations about the journey of product placement from the 90’s till now.)

There is no question as to what You’ve Got Mail is: it is that dreaded genre, that disfigured, abused cinematic whore, the Romantic Comedy.  But it is not one of the rom-coms I watch quietly, away from judgmental eyes, taking it into me like a drug to satisfy a perverted craving for blissful ignorance and happy endings and a guy who just says the right thing without having to be asked, my god.  No, I think that this is a genuinely good movie, for many reasons other than the ones stated above.  And I have always loved it, but now, as a New Yorker in 2014, I love it for completely new and pertinent reasons.  The city of eight million people has a strange tendency to be achingly lonely.  People here and in other modern metropolises like online connections as much, if perhaps not more so, than dwellers of less populated areas because it actually is more difficult to meet anyone here, let alone a great, genuine person.  The crushing volume of people presents an illusion of possibility more often than it actual delivers.  Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly knew that.  He was dating one of those hateful city she-shrews, all career and yelling and no empathy, and she was saddled to a New York version of Sleepless in Seattle’s Pullman character, less doormat and more quasi-intellectual, pre-hipster, self-involved walking piece of total exhaustion that every city woman finds herself with at one point or another (he instantly, entertainingly dates the movie by delivering its opening line, bemoaning technology through an anecdote about workers who had to have Solitaire removed from their computers because they weren’t getting work done. HA).  When I watch Joe and Kathleen, I fall in love with New York City all over again because of the way it seamlessly fosters their tension, romantic and combative both.  Starting off the film with a great, simple line like, “Don’t you love New York in the fall?” and nearly ending it with, “It’d be a shame to miss New York in the spring,” makes this inhabitant pause and smile to herself, because even when you don’t have someone to love, you at least have your tempestuous, rewarding, depleting, intoxicating relationship with your city, and the hope that maybe that someone is just around the corner.


Originally written in 2014.


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