1.21.2018

Movies: You've Got Mail

Years ago, I watched The Shop Around the Corner in film school. I also met Nora Ephron briefly in the summer of 1997, which is around the time this movie must have been filming, or perhaps was in pre-production. Yet somehow I'd never seen this movie before. I think maybe I was a little young for it at the time it came out, and rom-coms have never really been a big thing for me anyway. And the 90's rom-com in particular is a very specific kind of movie. You generally need a precocious child (or two) and a dog. That's the bare minimum for a 90's romantic comedy.

Okay, so this movie. Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, son of the multi-millionaire founder of Fox Books, which is basically what Borders used to be, or what Amazon is now that it has brick-and-mortar stores, I guess. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly. She owns—wait for it—The Shop Around the Corner, which is a children's bookstore that she inherited from her mother. It's been in business for 42 years. But now a big Fox Books is opening down the street, and . . . You see where this is going.

Where I struggled with this movie from the very beginning is that Joe and Kathleen have an online thing going. They met in a chatroom (and boy, it's really something to see people using AOL and dial-up again) and email each other daily under the monikers NY152 and Shopgirl respectively. Which might be fine except both of them are also in physical relationships with other people. Okay, not married, but, you know, committed. Ostensibly. But apparently not really. All I'm saying is that, right out of the gate this movie asks me to invest in two emotional cheaters. "It's okay," the movie tells me, "because these two people are soulmates, and anyway, their significant others are terrible."

Oh, well that makes it all okay then, I guess.

I could go on about this, but I won't. I'll just say it's a cracked foundation upon which to then build a rom-com.

Fox Books opens, and The Shop Around the Corner begins to flounder. Eventually it's forced to close. Apparently Kathleen can continue to afford an apartment in an expensive neighborhood, though, so . . . ::shrug:: While the themes of indie vs big box seem relevant even some 20 years later, this movie does little to make a case for the little guy. We're supposed to be sad that Kathleen had to close her mother's store, but Kathleen is then inundated with job offers (none of which she apparently takes because I guess she doesn't need money), and her ex-employees go work for Fox Books or were already wealthy or whatever. So what harm was really done by this big bookstore opening?

Maybe that's done so that Joe can not seem too evil. After all, he's the hero here, and you can't stack too many sins up else the audience won't like him, no not even if it's Tom Hanks.

Joe figures out long before Kathleen does that she is Shopgirl, the person he's been emailing. Knowing that they got off on the wrong foot in real life, he decides to . . . string her along? Really?

Seriously, he starts "running into" Kathleen, and they hang out, and she talks to him about this online guy, and he just rolls with it, trying to worm his way into her life and heart. Meanwhile, he evidently doesn't consider that he's putting Kathleen—this person he supposedly is in love with—in a terrible situation of being caught between the guy she likes online and this guy she's starting to like IRL. Joe has put her in an agonizing position. That's a crap thing to do.

What's worse: she falls for it!

Yeah, the requirement for a rom-com is a happily ever after, but ugh. Kathleen ends up without a career and now she'll what? Be taken care of by her millionaire boyfriend? Maybe he'll get her a job with his big bookstore? Hooray?

Kathleen has apparently zero problems with the fact that Joe kept her in the dark for weeks or months or however long. She strikes me as someone with low self-esteem, and NY152/Joe is a kind of crutch for her.

Maybe I'm reading this all wrong. Maybe I'm supposed to say, "Oh but they started as online friends and now they're a couple, and that's the best kind of relationship, where you're friends first!" Friends online but enemies IRL, but once he destroys her career and she's reduced to nothing, he can build her back up and everything is all good?

My head is spinning.

Look, the movie itself is really cute. But the power dynamic is super off. Joe has all the power from the very start, and he misuses it in various ways. Even if he means well, it's problematic.

I know I'm looking at this through a lens 20 years beyond. I'm sure I'd find similar issues in any number of 90's romantic comedies. And maybe I'm too sensitive or nitpicky. Was the movie charming? Sure. But was it good? Weeelll . . . Let's just say it's a product of its time and environment, a kind of artifact, and leave it at that.