You've Got Mail Gave Us a Glimpse of Our Dating Future
BY ASHLEY MORTON
The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan classic dealt with online romance long before we could swipe right.
It may be hard to believe that You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s “modern day take” on the 1940 Jimmy Stewart film, The Shop Around the Corner (itself based on a play), is now 20 years old — after all, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are still a beloved on-screen couple and New York in the fall is still a can’t-miss experience So what did You’ve Got Mail, a glorious romantic comedy about two people who learn the line between love and hate is just an AOL dial-up tone, tell us about our futures without our even realizing it?
Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) are both in relationships, but neither can wait for their significant others to get out the door, so eager are they to hop online and email each other. The hitch? Neither Joe nor Kathleen know the others’ real identity: Joe owns a corporate bookstore chain, Fox Books (picture Barnes & Noble in its heyday), which is taking over Manhattan’s Upper West Side, home to Kathleen’s independent children’s bookstore. The two cannot stand each other professionally, but online, their anonymous chatting is sweet and supportive.
Even in 1998, Ephron asked a question that continues to plague us, i.e. “Is it infidelity if you’re involved with someone online?” Luckily Kathleen is too charming for any of us to consider her a real cheater, but by today’s standards, Kathleen and Joe are having an affair. What keeps it from being sordid is our 1998 confusion about whether online exchanges “count.”
Maybe Kathleen’s typewriter-obsessed boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear, perfectly cast) was on to something. “You think this machine is your friend, but it’s not,” he calls to her in the opening scene. Could Frank have anticipated the data-mining, text-neck, and digital distraction people experience today?
While the internet allowed Joe and Kathleen to be open emotionally, albeit under anonymous handles, it’s only when they’re meeting in person that they get to know each other’s true selves. They aren’t fulfilled — and for that matter neither are we — until the final face-to-face scene when identities are revealed and they share a classic rom-com kiss. When Kathleen sends a “cosmic question out into the void” because she’s sad, she’s exemplifying what many social media users now do on a daily basis. We put ourselves out there emotionally, to no one in particular, searching for support and even hope. Imagine if Kathleen had had a Twitter account. Ephron prophetically realized that the internet, in all its infiniteness, would never be a substitute for an old-fashioned, in-person conversation.
Watching You’ve Got Mail 20 years later also means some fun throwbacks: The bated-breath wait as the modem dials up, the single email in Kathleen’s mailbox, and the threat of chain stores in a time when Amazon was just getting started. One wonders if Joe ever pointed out to Kathleen how silly it was for her to visit a Starbucks every morning when she was picketing superstore chains in the afternoon.
What remains timeless however is Nora and Delia Ephron’s insightful thinking and beautiful writing. It’s hard to hear Joe and Kathleen voice-overs without imagining these were the emails Ephron herself would write: observations about bouquets of sharpened pencils, that the internet is where we “are more likely to talk about nothing than something.” Joe’s comment that his is an “American family” is still poignant, perhaps even more so in these polarized times when we’re constantly redefining the meanings of love and home.
The Ephrons’ script is only made stronger by the incredible cast that drives it home. Ryan and Hanks will always be an enchanting matchup, but the ensemble, featuring the aforementioned Kinnear, Parker Posey, Dave Chappelle, Heather Burns, Steve Zahn and Jean Stapleton pull it all together. And keep a close eye out for the Fox Books employee played by a very young Chris Messina and Jane Adams as Sydney Anne.
The internet, and the way we use it, has evolved. How we find love and communicate with each other has adapted. A lot has changed since You’ve Got Mail premiered, but an appreciation for a well-made film, playful writing and great chemistry has not. Ephron sought answers to questions that may have been a little ahead of the rest of us, and she found a way to do it that remains delightful, bright and smart, even after all this time.