"Help save 'The Shop Around the Corner'!" That's what Kathleen (Meg Ryan) says to a concerned New York crowd in You've Got Mail. She is referring to her folksy, old-fashioned, small-business bookstore for kids, but at least some small percentage of the audience for this film will be applying the sentiment directly to the masterpiece upon which it is based: Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.
Poor Ernst's heavenly slumber must be severely disturbed by this atrocious homage. To be fair, You've Got Mail actually appropriates very little from its source of inspiration – beyond the basic premise of two lovers, Kathleen and Joe (Tom Hanks), who correspond but do not realise that they tangle on a daily basis in the workplace. Where Lubitsch's film used old-fashioned snail mail, this one tries to milk the comic possibilities of e-mail technology.
Beyond a few passing lines of dialogue that needle various modern neuroses, there is nothing clever or inventive happening at any level in this film. Where Lubitsch's style was deft, economical, and constantly surprising in its small revelations and lightning switches of mood, You've Got Mail is a formless, shapeless crawl through a story that is made banal at every turn.
Nora Ephron (director and co-writer with sister Delia) makes the flimsiest movies around. It is one thing for a filmmaker to bestow a light touch upon events and characters – and quite another to render them all equally insubstantial and phony. You've Got Mail is a catalogue of empty attractions and contemporary clichés. It glides over every intriguing or knotty element in its material faster than even Peter Weir did in The Truman Show (1998).
Why does the plot have to stop every ten minutes for a vapid song and montage devoted to the air-brushed glories of New York? Why don't any of the couples in the film – whether actual or virtual – get within a mile of the joys and complications of sexuality? Why does Ephron have to let us know from the very first minute that Joe and Kathleen's respective partners – Patricia (Parker Posey) and Frank (Greg Kinnear) – are vacuous, unromantic and utterly expendable?
Worst of all are the blank spaces at the centre of this movie nominally occupied by Hanks and Ryan. In this respect as in so many others, You've Got Mail is a poor retread of Ephron's previous success Sleepless in Seattle (1993) – in itself a travesty of the romantic comedy tradition.
It is hard to believe that these two stars have built a career on their supposed charm. Here, they are brittle, two-dimensional and gormless. The sight of Ryan jabbing her spindly limbs into the air while muttering "Fight! Fight!" is particularly pathetic – but the perfect emblem for this painfully contrived and unfeeling re-make.
© Adrian Martin December 1998