Ciara Anne likes watching films and talking about them, but she tries not to do both at once.
Romance in the Early Days of the Internet
You’ve Got Mail (1998) was added to Netflix in Ireland recently, and made it on to my quarantine watch list. If you’re not familiar with the story, Kathleen and Joe are two strangers who meet in a chatroom in the early days of the internet. They enter into a long and intimate correspondence, not realizing that in “real life” they are business rivals and enemies.
Kathleen (Meg Ryan) owns a beautiful children’s bookshop, established by her mother, on New York’s Upper West Side. Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, whose family runs a chain of successful superstores called Fox Books. When a branch of Fox Books opens around the corner from Kathleen’s shop, it swiftly puts her out of business.
Fairy Tale of New York
I had only seen this movie once before in the early 2000s. At the time, I was working in a famous, formerly independent Dublin bookshop which had just been taken over by a large franchise. The film made me angry back then; Joe was especially offensive. Approximately 20 years later and no longer a bookseller, I was willing to give it another chance.
You’ve Got Mail was far more enjoyable the second time around. In the years since I first saw it, I’ve read and loved director Nora Ephron’s essays and her novel Heartburn. Whenever I watch one of her films, however flawed, it feels a bit like meeting Nora Ephron in person, or as close as I’ll ever get.
The New York of You’ve Got Mail has a quaint and comforting quality, almost like a fairy tale. It’s artificial but soothing. A pleasant place to spend a couple of hours; a perfect pandemic escape from reality.
Joe Is Awful
But I hated Joe even more than I anticipated. He is a terrible person: arrogant, rude, insensitive and entitled. Joe epitomizes corporate greed and the callousness of those who not only possess power, but happily crush those without any.
It’s understandable that two strangers communicating solely through emails could fall in love. After all, they’re only seeing the polished, edited, best version of one another. How Kathleen presents herself online is not even that different to her true character. Joe, however, comes across as far more sensitive, thoughtful and affable on a computer screen than in person.
Almost every scene in which Joe appears involves him being rude and condescending to all those around him. At a party, Joe selfishly takes all the caviar, not even deterred by a disgusted Kathleen telling him it’s a garnish. In most of his encounters with Kathleen, Joe is incredibly, and unnecessarily, cruel.
Joe Destroys Kathleen's Bookshop
Joe lies to and manipulates Kathleen from the beginning of the film. When they finally arrange to meet, Joe realizes that Kathleen is his blind date before she sees him. He not only lets Kathleen think she has been stood up, but taunts her about it.
Joe destroys Kathleen’s beloved shop and takes pleasure in telling her it’s “inconsequential” by his estimation. The bookstore is more than a business to Kathleen. It’s her passion, her connection to her deceased mother, and something she hopes to pass on to her own future children.
Before eventually revealing himself as NY152 (his chat username), Joe forges a friendship with Kathleen (known as Shopgirl online). It’s astonishing that Kathleen could form a platonic relationship with someone who belittled and bulldozed her life so spectacularly and casually. Even more bewildering is that she could feel any kind of romantic attraction to the man who had done this to her.
A Modern Mr. Darcy?
Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are referenced several times. Perhaps Joe is meant to be considered a modern version of Darcy. Pride does comes between Joe and Kathleen initially (and in Kathleen's case is justified). But although Darcy could be rude, conceited and cold, he was always honest with Elizabeth, and would never have annihilated anything she held dear.
Wouldn’t it be impossible to see past that irrevocable act? Wouldn’t it rear its head during every single argument they ever had? “Did you forget to put the bins out again?” “Yes, but so what? You destroyed my dead mother’s shop, obliterated my inheritance and ruined her legacy!”
It’s impossible not to also imagine sparks flying at every occasion Kathleen has to spend time with Joe’s father and grandfather. They are even worse than Joe and reminiscent of the family of bankers in Mary Poppins. How abhorrent they are, and Kathleen’s probable reluctance to be in their company, would certainly be a source of friction in the relationship too.
Kathleen Deserves Better
Surely Kathleen would feel foolish and frustrated with Joe for how he had manipulated her once he figured out she was Shopgirl? How could Kathleen not be repulsed by Joe’s exploitation of what he learned about her through their virtual relationship? Doesn’t Kathleen believe she deserves a partner more worthy of her?
An alternative ending could have had Kathleen realizing the dangers of falling for someone’s online identity, and finding meaningful connections in the real world instead. Perhaps that’s what happened eventually. And Joe might have gotten a taste of his own medicine by being put out of business by Amazon.
P.S. I still cried at the end
The Film's Original Trailer
© 2020 Ciara Anne
Ciara Anne (author) from Ireland on July 31, 2020:
Yeah I think I would watch anything that Meg Ryan is in, especially from the 80s & 90s!
Maree OHara on July 31, 2020:
Have watched this film so many times. Needless to say I’m a huge fan of Meg Ryan, Have not watched it for quite a while so during lockdown I’ve watched it again & what a great escape from reality for an Afternoon....
Ciara Anne (author) from Ireland on July 28, 2020:
That's true - I always get a shock when I see either of them photographed in real life with other romantic partners!
Noel Penaflor from California on July 28, 2020:
The times I've seen this, I never think of them as their characters. They're always Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and no matter how incompatible they are, everything will turn out for them.