You've Got Mail (1999)

D: Nora Ephron
S: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan

Pleasant if undistinguished romantic comedy in which Sleepless in Seattle director Nora Ephron reteams co-stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as would-be lovers. Ryan is a children's bookstore owner whose way of life is threatened when Hanks' chain-store branch opens across the street. Though he represents everything she despises, both personally and professionally, she has a developing friendship with him as an e-mail correspondent, where neither of them knows the other's real identity. The stage is set for old-fashioned romantic misunderstanding with a touch of commentary upon contemporary personal and technical communications.

Ephron is unable to do much with the internet. It is largely just a backdrop to the action. There are certain recognisable situations arising directly from the new medium's impact on human relationships (Ryan's conflicting emotions when asked if she would like to actually meet her virtual companion), but the film tends to stick with the formula of the romantic comedy. Though it is dialogue heavy, much of it is delivered in the form of 'reading aloud as I type' voice overs, which quickly becomes tedious, and raises the same moral doubts on my part that Sleepless in Seattle did with its non-communicating 'perfect couple' (who didn't even see one another until the end of the movie). Luckily, this aspect of the plot is balanced by the antagonistic real-world relationship, and the shifting between the two is the centre of the comic action. It does play itself out relatively quickly though, and when Hanks learns who his on-line friend really is he continues to manipulate her while unsure of his own feelings, leading to the inevitable and too long delayed cathartic confrontation.

The film is relatively harmless and appealingly performed by its leads, who are well used to the routine by now. It lacks sparkle, but it is polished. Ephron keeps the story moving, though it reinvents itself whenever it feels something lacking. Supporting performances from a variety of familiar faces are solid enough, though the subsidiary characters are really just meant to throw the spotlight all the more onto the leads.

It may be remembered as the first use of the internet for on-screen romance, but You've Got Mail is an otherwise workmanlike and unmemorable variant on an old formula. It depends entirely upon your predisposition to the genre and your affection for the stars. If either is lukewarm, you should probably leave it alone.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.