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With: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Greg Kinnear, David Chappelle, Dabney Coleman, Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn
Written by: Nora Ephron, Delia Ephron, based on a play by Miklós László
Directed by: Nora Ephron
MPAA Rating: PG for some language
Running Time: 119
Date: 12/18/1998

You've Got Mail (1998)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lubitsch Lite

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Whenever someone in Hollywood comes up with a remake, it's our job as movie reviewers to stand up and defend the original work. We all screamed bloody murder when we heard Psycho was being remade. We sneered at A Perfect Murder, a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. Meg Ryan starred in a remake of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire earlier this year called City of Angels. Now it's my job to make readers aware of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which writer/director Nora Ephron has remade as You've Got Mail.

Ernst Lubitsch was a director as popular in his day as Hitchcock was in his. But he died more than 50 years ago, and is close to being forgotten by today's generation. He made romantic comedies with an inventive style that was easily identifiable from film to film. It was called "The Lubitsch Touch" by insiders and fans alike, which meant a touch of class, of sophistication. The Shop Around the Corner was one of Lubitsch's masterpieces. In Shop Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play workers in a little shop in Budapest, always on the verge of going broke. They can't stand one another by day but, unbeknownst to each other, are secret pen-pals by night. Both actors are wonderful and Lubitsch moves the action along slyly, playing emotions to the hilt, but keeping a strange and beautiful sadness to the tone.

Ephron's idea was to upgrade the movie to cyberspace with the two lovers, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, as anonymous email pals. Ephron (who wrote You've Got Mail with her sister, Delia) recreates the bittersweet feel of the original by having Ryan own a small independent bookstore, and Hanks -- who owns of a huge chain of megabookstores -- open one right across the street from her. The two become instant enemies and Ryan's small bookstore (called The Shop Around the Corner) goes out of business and closes down. We hope for the pair to overcome their professional hatred of each other and fall in love. (Although the movie is pro-small business, it features severe product placement from megabucks companies like Starbucks and AOL.)

I was surprised how much I enjoyed You've Got Mail, despite the fact that it's a remake of a beloved classic, and despite it's being from the same team that gave us the tepid Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

You've Got Mail is not a perfect movie. It doesn't approach the atmosphere of the original, and Tom Hanks is a long way from Jimmy Stewart. Hanks superstar status is so firmly rooted by now that it seems impossible for him to play anything other than the embodiment of the American Dream. The risk taking is gone. His range has been narrowed down to very little. In You've Got Mail he tries to be a little colder and harder to fit the corporate superstore character, but I found myself not believing him, and wishing I was watching Stewart, or, someone with a little more potency (like Michael Keaton). Ryan, on the other hand, is a delight. She doesn't seem to have the same sharp awareness that Margaret Sullavan had, but her wholesomeness always seems real, and her charm works on us.

Ephron's greatest weakness is in her supporting cast, who seem to exist only to bounce off the leads. They're fleshed out by accomplished actors like Parker Posey (The Daytrippers), Steve Zahn (Out of Sight), and Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets). They all have funny one-liners from time to time, but we have no idea who they are, and eventually, we just wish they would go away. Maybe Ephron should do away with sidekicks altogether and focus on a two-character piece.

I'm complaining a bit, but I liked the intelligence of You've Got Mail and the New York feel of the movie. I also liked the surprise twist of the plot. It's a good date movie, and I recommend it. But don't forget to rent The Shop Around the Corner. There. My job is done.

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