VOD film review: You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Mark Harrison | On 29, Dec 2020
Director: Nora Ephron
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Dave Chappelle
Watch You’ve Got Mail online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
While You’ve Got Mail spans six months with December bang in the middle, it’s a timely reminder to shop locally and support small businesses over the Christmas period. It happens to be benevolently backed by peak late-1990s corporate brand integration, but hey, it’s got Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, together again after their winning romantic collaborations in Joe Vs The Volcano and Sleepless In Seattle.
Written and directed by the great Nora Ephron, this romantic comedy hinges on an emotional affair between “Shopgirl” and “NY152”, the AOL screen names of small bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) and superstore mogul Joe Fox, (Hanks). In real life, they’re locked in an ongoing battle for the soul of New York’s West Side, but when one of the feuding businesspeople discovers the other’s identity, they become ever more entangled, with only the occasional commercial break.
The film adapts the stage play Parfumerie, which was previously made into 1940’s The Shop Around The Corner (hence the name of Katherine’s mom-and-pop store) with Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart. Arriving right on the bubble of traditional communications, Ephron explicitly draws out the parallels with Pride And Prejudice too, making email communications the main means of expression for the likeable leads and fostering dislike between their characters whenever they share the screen.
You can get a long way on charm in these movies, and Ephron carries off her commentary on the newness of online dating from an endearingly old-fashioned perspective. Hanks and Ryan are funny and vulnerable and while you don’t necessarily root for them to get together from the off, the film puts the time in on their connection issues. The old problem of letter-writing being a touch un-cinematic is countered with a nice bit of overacting, (Ryan’s typing face and posture made us giggle) but, miraculously, the online sequences prove to be as watchable as the offline ones.
All the same, the supporting cast proves indispensable. As the inevitably unsuitable partners, Greg Kinnear’s left-leaning columnist is a fully formed send-up of every male regular on The West Wing before The West Wing had even hit TV screens, and the perpetually undervalued Parker Posey serves as a suitably snide player in Joe’s corporate lifestyle. There are also fun comic performances from Dave Chappelle, playing the snarky best friend role and then disappearing entirely around the halfway mark, and Jean Stapleton, whose character is a sketch but a well-observed one.
While the product placement has become a stick to beat the film with, (as mentioned when we covered Ghost back in January, https://vodzilla.co/reviews/the-90s-on-netflix-ghost-1990/ box-office hits that women like do tend to get this treatment) it’s purely a means to an end. Frankly, it’s far less clumsy than in most modern franchise movies. The reason it sticks out is not that it overpowers the story, but that the film’s congenial nature is disrupted every time a logo appears on screen.
Ephron’s observations about Starbucks’ menu and clientele are sharp and witty, but as Hanks narrates them, you feel as if you’re watching an advert. When Ryan finds herself short on cash and Hanks amiably convinces the cashier to accept a Visa card with a smile and a ruthless precision dad joke, it feels like a standalone Superbowl spot. And yes, when we discover the delights of AOL Instant Messenger, you still feel you’re being sold something.
We’re programmed to dislike adverts by now, which is why marketing techniques have become that much more insidious these days. In this case, you buy the attraction of it all, and that’s what matters. The film does run a little long in Ephron’s steadfast refusal to be predictable (what, you thought the little shop would make it?) or easy (the agony of anonymity gives way to some delightful face-time in the last 20 minutes), but its ending is graceful where this particular story objectively ought not to be.
The bottom line turned out just fine. Warmly received by critics, the film was a hit around Christmas 1998, grossing $250 million on a $68m budget, and a couple of years later, WB’s parent company Time Warner would tie the knot with AOL in a big old corporate merger that makes this one retroactively look a bit like courtship. Hanks later had a minor role in her directorial debut, 2016’s Ithaca, as Ryan’s character’s late husband, but this remains their last marquee reunion to date.
One thing The 90s On Netflix has always considered is how well a film stands up more than 20 years after its release. In this case, the rise of catfishing, ghosting, and general online information means that a 2020 version of You’ve Got Mail would be as different to the 1998 one as this is to The Shop Around The Corner. That makes this a high-wire act between old-fashioned entertainment and prescient social commentary, balanced with brass-faced product placement. It’s hard to think who other than Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan, could have brought it in this neatly.
You’ve Got Mail is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.