Note: This article contains discusses a few plot points from You’ve Got Mail in detail and contains some spoilers.
Reports of Nora Ephron’s death last week led thoughts to immediately turn, of course, to When Harry Met Sally…, whose screenplay is not only Ephron’s finest achievement, but also the foundation for the best romantic comedy ever filmed. Yes, better than The Philadelphia Story, better than The Apartment, better than the one-two punch of Annie Hall and Manhattan. It’s the gold standard.
But then my thoughts turned to You’ve Got Mail. Despite being a box office hit, it’s not as warmly remembered today as Sleepless in Seattle, which always surprised me – probably because I never cared for Sleepless (or its inspiration, the sappy, unbearable An Affair to Remember), while Mail still charms effortlessly. (As does its inspiration, The Shop Around the Corner. Maybe having stronger source material makes all the difference?)
More importantly, Mail can be viewed today as the ultimate Nora Ephron movie. Not only do we get a parade of upper class intellectuals displaying their finest wit and charm, not only do we comedy built entirely upon character, not only do we get (gasp!) fully realized female characters with finely crafted personalities and complications, but we also get a full-on tribute to Ephron’s New York.
The Upper West Side, to be exact, for which Ephron paints a glowing tribute*. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” gets both the Nilsson and Sinead O’Connor treatment on the soundtrack, but more than that, the cinematography frames the city in warm, welcoming colors, while the script drops its leads into the area’s most inviting corners, suggesting a small town vibe. There’s no time here for notions of getting lost in the Big City, no thought wasted on notions of the ironies of isolation within a metropolis. In Ephron’s New York, everyone is welcome everywhere they go, and oh, to what wondrous places they go. In Ephron’s New York, everyone is always surrounded by the people they love.
This is a major theme of the movie. Not that New York will make you feel at home (that’s just an added Ephronism) but that the two leads here have, in the people they love, an unusual but completely valid sense of family. “An American Family,” Joe Fox calls it. Consider the scene where the Foxes – three generations where Joe’s aunt and stepbrother are, through flukes of remarriage, both decades younger than he is – gather for Thanksgiving, and then we cut to Kathleen’s own gathering, a get-together of co-workers and friends. This is her family, and like the Foxes, they’ve gathered around the piano to enjoy a holiday filled with song and togetherness.
Through these two family portraits, we get the political core of the film, and here’s where most of the movie’s detractors focus their complaints. Shake away the romance and the comedy, and Mail is the story of a big corporation crushing the mom-and-pop competition. Ephron allows the two families to represent liberal vs. conservative, capitalism vs. heart. When Joe repeats the “it’s business, not personal” mantra, Kathleen declares there’s no separation of the two. To her, business is personal, because it’s not about making money, it’s about following a dream. The Foxes talk in terms of profit margins and repeat business through low prices and trendy offerings; Kathleen talks in terms of helping others, of making personal connections with customers, connections which run deeper than repeat business.
Thing is, the screenplay, while lamenting the decline of small business, allows the film more grey areas than one would expect. Had Mail been nothing more than a political screed, Fox Books would’ve lost the fight, The Shop Around the Corner would’ve stayed open, and the final scene would’ve featured a long speech from Meg Ryan about how the Wal-Marts of the world are destroying America. Instead, we get some unexpected objectivity. The Foxes may be cold in their business dealings, but they’re warm in their personal ones. When Kathleen visits Fox Books, she discovers a place that’s somewhat as inviting as her own store was. And Joe, unlike the elder Foxes, seems to care enough about his store to feel shame when a clerk doesn’t know the merchandise – and pride when he hires Kathleen’s most knowledgeable employee and lets him run the children’s department. The movie’s lone political message regarding the rise of box box stores is, simply, this is how it is, so let’s hope for the best from it. She’s less interested in making a capital-p Point than she is in walking her characters through a complex world, one with heroes who don’t always win and with villains who mean well. There’s better drama down that road.
Most curious about the screenplay is how thoroughly it weaves its complications. Kathleen’s mother, we learn, has connections not only to Kathleen but to Joe, too, whose grandfather once fell for her (and still speaks lovingly of her). That’s a nice touch, suggesting an influence which reaches far beyond Kathleen herself, so when she laments the closing of her store, there’s a level to that loss of which she’s not even aware.
The mother-daughter connection (I’m always gutted by the scene where Kathleen, closing the store, remembers dancing with her mom) helps underline the fact that while Hanks gets top billing, and while his character gets plenty of screen time, this is Meg Ryan’s movie. It’s her character, not Joe, who serves as the story’s center, and it’s her performance, in a film filled with great ones, that’s the best. This is Ryan at her winningest, playing arguably the finest written character of her career – and the movie’s final few minutes, especially that wordless reaction to Joe’s appearance, is the best work she’s ever done. Mail is two hours of everything we love about Meg Ryan, her loveliness, her feistiness, her silliness.
And it’s everything we love about Nora Ephron. Her intelligence, her knack for characters and conversation, her comic timing, her warmth. You’ve Got Mail is a great big hug of a film. Its Nora Ephron’s Ephronist movie.
*(Yes, Ephron’s sister and frequent collaborator Delia Ephron co-wrote the screenplay and deserves shared credit for most of the story work here. But for most of this article, I’m speaking of Nora Ephron the writer/director, whose visual touches are just as important to the story as the written ones.)