I Just Watched You’ve Got Mail for the First Time and You Guys, It’s Bad
Reader, I Was Not Charmed
You like quirky setups? Here’s the quirky setup for you: before this past weekend, I had never seen You’ve Got Mail. This setup doesn’t actually seem all that quirky to me, to be honest, but I have been told that this is unusual, irresponsible even, considering that I am both in my thirties and an editor at a literary website.
“This is the quintessential literary film of the 90s!” cried one of my coworkers when I revealed this fatal flaw, worse, probably, than hubris. (“Maybe bookish,” I thought. “But surely not literary.” As you may notice, I am something of a snob, and also I don’t particularly care for rom-coms, except for the very fine film The Holiday.) I was also roundly mocked by my coworkers for repeatedly referring to the movie as Who’s Got Mail?, which I still have not been able to stop doing. I even distractedly wrote “Who’s Got Mail” at the top of my notepad as I stared at the real title on the screen. Unacceptable, I was told. Go watch it, I was told, or prepare to surrender your Lit Hub tote bag and tortoiseshell reading glasses in shame.
As the opening credits rolled, my first thought was “Oh no. . . it’s the 90s.” My second thought was “I thought this was a rom-com.” What does all this elaborate 3-D imaging have to do with anything? I thought this was a movie about email? (Is this what email felt like in the 90s? Were we still calling it e-mail when this movie was made? Or even E-mail? How does Saturn figure into all of this? Oh wait, I get it, it’s cyberspace.) This was not at all the vibe I had been expecting from this film. Was it going to be more The Matrix and less Must Love Dogs? Was I actually in for a bizarre treat? Then, after a minute or two, “The Puppy Song” started playing, and suddenly the movie had exactly the vibe I had been expecting.
My next impression was that clearly, this movie finds itself solidly in the cinematic tradition of fictional New Yorkers living in amazing apartments and neighborhoods despite not making any money. A struggling bookseller lives in that apartment on the Upper West Side? With those built-in bookshelves? Please. You can’t even come up with a story about rent-stabilization because we know from a later conversation that it’s only the gay Canadian ice dancer, aka George, aka Steve Zahn, who has a rent-stabilized apartment. He can’t shut up about it! That part of the movie, at least, is intensely believable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because the next thing that happens after the cyberspace and the built-in bookshelves is the appearance of Greg Kinnear, who tells us that computers are “the end of Western civilization as we know it,” which in 2020 I can only cosign, and Meg Ryan sneaking around her apartment as though looking at her email would be a weird and suspicious thing to be doing if her smart and normal (if fairly insufferable—three of the same typewriter?) boyfriend came back to get his umbrella or something. The thing that happens after that is my having what I can only imagine is akin to an acid flashback when I hear the AOL startup noises. Horrifying.
So now we see what’s going on here: Meg Ryan is having a clandestine email exchange with Tom Hanks! (This is 100 percent emotional cheating, for the record.) But so far, I’m not sold. I mean, is the opening email about his dog supposed to be charming? I don’t think it is very charming. Congratulations on your boilerplate dog, Tom. You probably shouldn’t let him eat trash off the street. Also, who wants a bouquet of newly-sharpened pencils? That’s schoolteacher twee to the point of nausea.But now Tom Hanks knows who Meg Ryan is, and she doesn’t know, so for the whole last third of the movie he’s basically gaslighting her.
But then the day is saved by Parker Posey, who swans into Tom’s kitchen, a high-powered, sharp-edged publishing executive. “Patricia makes coffee nervous.” My queen.
Anyway, as it turns out, the dog email was, I guess, better than the expository email that follows it in voice over. “I like to start my notes to you as if we’re in the middle of a conversation,” writes Meg Ryan. That does sound like it’s right in the middle of a conversation. (Reader, it doesn’t.) Also, now is about the moment where the sheer corniness of the concept begins to overwhelm me. Why are you in love with this guy who writes you boring emails about his dog? How is it possible you got the AOL handle “Shopgirl” with no numbers attached? Is no one involved worried about serial killers?
On the plus side, New York City really is wonderful in the fall, and that’s always nice to see.
Also nice to see: a septuagenarian talking frankly to her younger coworkers about cybersex. That’s got Nora Ephron written all over it.
Shortly thereafter, here comes Dave Chapelle looking like a beatnik for no apparent reason (except . . . he works in books?), and I guess the joke here is that he and Tom Hanks say about 30 percent of their words at the same time, but I don’t get it. “We’re gonna sell ‘em cheap books and legal addictive stimulants,” he says. “Yeah, that’s how you seduce people.” A tale as old as time.
This is the point in the movie where it starts to feel ridiculous, at least from my current vantage. Okay, so I didn’t find the dog story-based romance particularly believable, but in the year of our lord 2020, the concept of Big Mean Chain Bookseller feels really outdated, if it was ever current at all. I mean, do we really think that Barnes & Noble executives sat around their office describing their couch fabric as “money” and pew-pewing their finger guns at small bookstores and refusing to romanticize their customers by referring to them as “readers”? I mean . . . maybe, but I’m not really buying it.
After all, bookselling has never been the most lucrative of fields, and in 1998, when Who’s Got Mail You’ve Got Mail was released, Amazon was already annoying Barnes & Noble by calling itself “the world’s largest bookstore.” We remember this because Barnes & Noble sued them for it. So maybe there is some truth to this portrayal of Big Mean Chain Bookseller after all—and some irony in this being a movie about the advent of online dating that ignores the advent of online bookselling. Both have changed a lot since the days of the chatroom. Tom Hanks isn’t going to be Richie Rich for long.
So let’s put it this way: this movie is set in an alternate reality where there’s a “superstore” for books, which now feels like a reality I wouldn’t mind living in. Fox Books looks super nice, and I really like their logo, too. Any bookstore is a good bookstore in 2020.
Anyway, back to the e-courtship (E-courtship?), such as it is. I see the woman likes Pride and Prejudice, and the man, he is more interested in his beer. Ah, beer and Jane Austen, the two genders. Meg Ryan shows off her bookselling chops by reading to children (and one obvious 14-year-old, what’s he doing there?) in a funny hat. It does seem like a nice store, and apparently it is based on Manhattan’s Books of Wonder, which still exists in Chelsea, pretty close to the Literary Hub office. (Though to be fair, I went there recently to buy a copy of Jumanji, and they didn’t have it in stock, and I had to walk to Barnes & Noble. “If they don’t have it, we do,” says Meg Ryan. “And vice versa,” says her accountant.)
So the movie goes on. It’s the second act. Tom Hanks continues to not charm me with his Godfather references, though I did like it when he ate the garnish. That’s the kind of childish shit adults love to do when they’re dressed up. He also does not charm me in Zabar’s with his “Come on, you can do it. Zip, zip.” Rose, the cashier, does appear to be charmed, however. This is an entirely believable scene that illuminates the difference between men and women in regards to their ability to break rules in public. If a woman is breaking a rule, even by accident, she is excoriated by the general public and can barely bring herself to beg for an exception; if a man does the same thing, he is considered to be charming and brash, no begging required. He’s a hero! He saves her from cashier disdain and not having cash. Even after it’s settled, everyone likes him and hates her. Absurd.
Next, a nightmarish interlude in which everyone’s families sing together over the holidays, only Meg Ryan seems to do this with her coworkers instead of her family. Look, I understand her mother is dead, but still. Only a short time after this I will realize that I don’t understand what the accountant’s relationship to Meg Ryan is—why does she have a locket with her old boss’s picture in it? That’s really a bridge too far.Fox Books looks super nice, and I really like their logo, too. Any bookstore is a good bookstore in 2020.
Once the singing is over, Tom Hanks starts telling Meg Ryan how great he is at advice. “I can give you advice. I’m great at advice.” Can you imagine typing that to someone? I am so confused by the epic love story supposedly underpinned by the limited, annoying correspondence between these two dorks. Goodnight, dear void, indeed. In other news, I really miss AIM.
What’s this thing about the lone reed? Is it a reference? If not, and probably even if so, I find it deeply depressing.
Also depressing is the psychotic fence rattling and hoarse screaming in which Tom Hanks engages when he finds out that his blind date is attractive. Like, we get it, Tom. You’re shallow. He goes in, and Meg Ryan seeks to wound him, telling him he has a cash register instead of a brain and a bottom line instead of a heart. Again, fine, but the man is in books.
Back to the computer, where Tom Hanks really needs to learn how to hold down the delete key. Another strike against him. Another strike against Meg Ryan? She didn’t vote, so we basically have Giuliani because of her. Yes, that is fair.
But now Tom Hanks knows who Meg Ryan is, and she doesn’t know, so for the whole last third of the movie he’s basically gaslighting her. How long does this go on? At least a season, considering it’s spring by the end of the movie. It gets worse when he basically forces himself into her apartment (so romantic) when she’s sick and in her pajamas and asking him to please go away, and demands that she become his “friend.” This scene is very, very odd—especially the part where Meg Ryan gets into bed when a relative stranger is in her apartment. The thought gives me chills.
(Also odd, by the way, is the subplot with Tom Hanks’s stepmother, who very obviously is trying to kiss him and touch his thigh all movie, and then apparently runs off with the newly divorced female nanny. Is she supposed to be . . . just a sex fiend? Cool, normal, fine. No weird sexual politics at play in this movie.)
So after Tom Hanks spends a lot of time and effort worming his way into the life of a woman whose business he destroyed and wearing her down to the point where she thinks she actually might be attracted to him, these two crazy and annoying kids get together at last. No hesitation from Meg Ryan, and no wondering about how many months this guy has been continuing to gaslight her. Fine! No fight about how he totally could have stepped in and saved her bookstore, or hired her to run his bookstore, etc. Fine. But the worst part of all: she wanted to become a children’s book writer when she could have become a children’s book editor instead? A choice only a woman now dating a rich book mogul could make.