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You've Got Mail

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/17/07 22:33:16

"Return to sender."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

At the risk of sounding impatient, I have to ask: How many more times are we going to have to watch Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan figure out they're in love? Don't they know they're Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?

We got it (even if we didn't want it) the first time, in 1993's Sleepless in Seattle (which was also directed by Nora Ephron). Hanks and Ryan then moved on to other roles, and yet here they are again in You've Got Mail, forced into one contrived situation after another so that they'll remain apart until the epiphany of the final scene, in which they realize that, yes, they are in a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy directed by Nora Ephron.

I didn't much care for Sleepless in Seattle, but at least that story had a genuine emotional pull: Hanks, a recent widower sick with love for his dead wife, attracts Ryan, who yearns for that kind of passion in her own life. You've Got Mail, by contrast, offers nothing except a plot jerry-rigged to keep Tom and Meg apart -- not physically this time, but emotionally. The story has been lifted from the Ernst Lubitsch classic The Shop Around the Corner, in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan didn't realize that their secret love-letter pen pals were actually each other. Stewart and Sullavan, working together in a Budapest leather shop, had a combative rapport that even in 1940 translated as erotic tension.

Ephron's updating of this material falls flat. Hanks owns a big bookstore chain that threatens to put Ryan's tiny children's-book shop out of business. Why? Perhaps so that Ephron could vent her feelings about big business driving out small business -- but in that case, why are we encouraged to sympathize with Hanks' character? It could turn out to be a bad strategy: I could sense people in the audience getting rigid with disapproval -- after all, most of us have seen beloved shops wither and die when a big chain opens nearby. The dialogue circles around the issue every which way, and Hanks' culpability in putting people out of work is never resolved. The movie simply bites off more than it can chew.

As for the e-mail update of the story: God knows people in real life form emotional attachments based on electronic correspondence, but the word for such attachment isn't usually "love." Closer to the truth might be "delusion," or at least wishful thinking. At best, it can be a good way to make pen pals. But to fall in love with someone based on e-mail? There's not even a tactile engagement with the person -- no letters to save in a special box, no handwriting to examine (does she dot her i's with circles? do his lines slant upward or downward?). Ephron doesn't seem aware that love via e-mail is a depressing subject for a movie -- one can imagine what Todd Solondz (Happiness) might do with it.

I see that I haven't talked much about the plot, but there really isn't one; as I said, it's just a series of grievances and misunderstandings postponing the inevitable. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that there was a moment when I thought Ephron would surprise us -- but she doesn't. Once a talented essayist, Ephron seems to have lost her taste and intelligence when she began writing for Hollywood. She still directs a movie by shoehorning one oldie after another onto the soundtrack, and she still depends far too much on star power to put her unexceptional dialogue across. (Having characters drop names like Foucault and Heidegger is literary dialogue, not literate dialogue.) There's literally nothing to say about the performances: Tom does his Tom thing, and Meg does her Meg thing.

Nothing in 'You've Got Mail' can touch the heartbreaking moment in 'The Shop Around the Corner' when Margaret Sullavan calls James Stewart "an insignificant clerk" and he looks stricken. There's a similar scene here when Meg tells Tom off, and he looks stricken too. But all I could think was, She's got a point.

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