You’ve Got Mail (1998) is one of the bonafide popular classics of the “golden age” of romantic comedies. Nora Ephron’s remake of The Shop Around The Corner (1940) updates Illatszertár for the age of AOL. The quaint correspondence between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan with its Post Office boxes is exchanged for the dial-up tone and the cheerily quipped “you’ve got mail” of the dawn of the cyber age. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are “jacked in”; exploring a new world of chat rooms for the potential cure to their loneliness and spiritual ennui.
The deceptions of the James Stewart character are accordingly transferred to the ever likable Tom Hanks. And while Hanks’ manipulations and deceptions fail to age well, Ephron manages to couch these failings in the context of Hanks’ fragile masculinity; as if a tender heart explains away such treatment. But more importantly You’ve Got Mail realizes that the deceptions of the romantic hero in James Stewart are part of a misogynist power structure. To that end Ephron is content for the audience to have the same mixed feelings about Tom Hanks as Meg Ryan does.
On the romantic front Tom Hanks’ character Joe Fox may be bidding for control but in the public sphere of the business front Fox is about subjugating Meg Ryan’s cute little children’s book store The Shop Around The Corner. Fox is a capitalist fat cat with a nineteenth century sense of romance. Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly is, in every respect, the underdog. And it is only after Fox has put Kelly out of business and won her heart on his terms that the two get together to the whimsical music of Harry Nilsson.
Throughout You’ve Got Mail Nora Ephron makes these calculated allusions to the past. Sometimes these allusions come in the form of romantic gestures (a flower pressed in a book) and sometimes in the form of a typewriter. But there is always this sense that the past was better. For Kathleen Kelly, the past is a fetish object that allows her to connect to her deceased mother and to marry Mr. Darcy. In many ways Ephron suggests that the idea of romance that Joe Fox brings to the table is exactly what Kathleen Kelly’s kink requires.
The film The Shop Around The Corner functions in the same way as Kelly’s copy of Pride & Prejudice; it’s an object in the popular consciousness that signals romance and nostalgia. By entering into this system of nostalgia Ephron quietly critiques the romantic comedy genre; the genre that defined her filmmaking career. Often what sounds romantic in a novel or film would, in reality, be quite disquieting. Yet, for Ephron, it is clear that these texts, often from a bygone age, inform popular culture’s notions of romantic love and leave a tremendous impression on our collective minds at a very young age.
You’ve Got Mail is problematic but intentionally so. To shy away from what is likely Nora Ephron’s definitive statement on the romantic comedy is to miss the entire point of the film. Subtly subversive, You’ve Got Mail invites the spectator to revel in the traditional superficial elements of the genre while also engaging with those elements in a reflexive context. You’ve Got Mail isn’t just a remake of The Shop Around The Corner, it’s an analysis of it.