You've Got Mail Review

by Frann Michel (frann AT mail DOT teleport DOT com)
January 6th, 1999

You’ve Got Mail: Summary and Critique

Summary :

You’ve Got Mail is the latest romantic comedy directed by Nora Ephron, and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and is an update of the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner. Ryan plays Cathleen Kelley, owner of a children’s bookstore started by her mother, and called "The Shop Around the Corner"; Hanks plays Joe Fox, grandson in the firm of Fox & Sons, which is about to open a mega-book mart literally around the corner (think Borders or Barnes & Noble). Meanwhile, the two have also been carrying on an anonymous email romance they keep secret from their respective partners—Greg Kinnear as a pompous luddite political columnist, and Parker Posey woefully underused as a book editor who "makes coffee nervous." When Hanks drops in at the children’s bookstore one day with his eight year old aunt (his grandfather’s daughter) and his 4 year old half brother (product of his father’s latest romance), some romantic sparks fly between the leads, and he declines to tell her his last name, keeping secret his role as the competition. At first, Kelley thinks Fox books won’t affect her business, and she certainly has no principled objection to large corporations (both protagonists get their morning coffee at Starbuck’s, and the movie has been described as an infomercial for AOL). But when her shop starts to suffer, she mounts a publicity campaign against the commercial giant, and the two booksellers become increasingly antagonistic off-line, even as he gives her business advice on-line. When they arrange to meet, he doesn’t tell her that he is, in fact, the man she’s been corresponding with. After she closes her shop because of plummeting sales, he continues to woo her both via email and in person. By the time she has begun writing a children’s book, and acknowledges that change is all for the best, both have broken up with their previous partners, and they finally kiss at the film’s conclusion.


You’ve Got Mail has gotten mixed reviews—one paper titled theirs "You’ve Got Treacle"—but even those less than enthusiastic have tended to neglect the politics of the film. We are in an era of increasing corporate consolidation that is reshaping media as well as other capitalist enterprises—Disney owns ABC, Time Warner owns Turner Broadcasting, and Bertelsmann, the German-based owner of Bantam Doubleday Dell, has signed an agreement to buy Random House. This makes the German based company the largest publisher of English-language books in the world, controlling 25% of adult trade publishing in the US . Such major corporate mergers tend to result in a significant decline in the number of "midlist" titles published and a decline in the diversity of titles and voices published (Feminist Bookstore News Spring 1998). Moreover, in 1998 the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and a number of independent bookstores filed a lawsuit against Borders and Barnes & Noble, charging unfair and illegal business practices. Among other problems, the suit notes that as chain superstores gain dominance, book prices rise: Barnes & Noble and Borders no longer offer discounts on most books, and their business practices—including insistence on special deals and slow payment— drive up the list price of books from which any discount is calculated. A serious issue in the consolidation of media, then, is the narrowing of the range and accessibility of written discourse. In You’ve Got Mail, however, the only real criticism offered of the superstore is that the salespeople it hires are insufficiently knowledgeable—a problem easily remedied by hiring some of those thrown out of work by the competition.

Moreover, even the movie’s transient nostalgia for small business obscures the fact that as a capitalist enterprise it is by definition exploitive, extracting surplus labor from writers, printers, bindery workers, and so on. The film is accurate, at least, in its suggestion that the logic of capitalism means that books are commodities, and the unchecked market leads to increasing monopolization. You’ve Got Mail resembles other recent cinematic representations of corporate growth in feminizing the small business (a children’s bookstore founded by a woman and run by her daughter) and masculinizing the large corporation. Moreover, although Fox & Sons is a family business of sorts, the repeated marriages and late-in-life childrearing of grandfather and father Fox indicates their failure in stable family values. Joe, however, is evidently supposed to be humanized by his discovery of a soulmate in the incredibly sweet Cathleen Kelley. (Even after he’s driven her out of business, she feels guilty about speaking harshly to him.) He also has a friendly dog and a black buddy/employee, and his seductive powers are never problematized. Early in the film, he talks with the manager of the not yet open superstore, and points out that they will seduce the customers. Later, he charms an irritated grocery clerk, and ultimately, of course, charms Kelley. She offers no objection to the discovery that he has known for the last third of the film that she is the "Shopgirl" of their email correspondence, and has withheld that information (surely an unfair if not illegal romantic practice). And of course, she completely forgives him for his business practices.

Love trumps politics. The Greg Kinnear character (the journalist boyfriend) is the only one who seems to express any political views, and is something of a buffoon. Ryan’s character, in contrast, reports that she forgot to vote in the last election because she was getting a manicure. The small store’s bookkeeper, played by Jean Stapleton, reports blandly that she had an affair with Franco in the 1960s. Even a fascist dictator, apparently, can be lovable (what’s next? Pinochet as romantic hero?).

Joe quotes The Godfather as the source of all wisdom, but the idea that capitalism is organized crime is neglected in favor of the cuteness of his love of cinema. Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is used as a justification for her forgiveness of him, and indeed, that novel is ultimately about the heroine’s insertion into the property structure.
In the 1940 Shop Around the Corner, on which You’ve Got Mail is based, the Jimmy Stewart character is senior clerk at Matusheks’ leather-good store. He doesn’t want to hire Margaret Sullavan; but she sells a cigarette-case/music box that the owner particularly likes, so Matushek hires her. The story is set in Budapest, and there is discussion among the shop employees of how bad the economy is, how hard it is to find a job, and how much they need to keep the jobs they have. (The shop’s record business on Christmas eve is described as the best since 1928. ) Sullavan, however, hopes soon to quit working and to marry her anonymous penpal, whom she doesn’t realize is Stewart, with whom she has a conflicted relationship at work. He, too, hopes to marry his anonymous penpal, with whom he corresponds on cultural topics, to improve himself, because he couldn’t afford an encyclopedia. But he realizes he needs a better salary if he is going to raise a family. Matushek, the fatherly owner, mistakenly thinks Stewart is having an affair with his wife, though it’s really a different salesman. He gets fired, and Sullavan calls him an insignificant little clerk (a castration to which Hanks is never subject). The owner learns the truth and makes a suicide attempt (his wife has chosen someone he would not respect or desire; he has wrongfully cast off his surrogate son—he later observes that the shop is his real home, where he has lived most of his life, and, alone on chistmas eve, takes out to dinner the new errand boy Rudy, who is alone in the city, too). Jimmy Stewart gets rehired and promoted to manager; Pepe the errand boy is promoted to clerk; the philanderer is fired (he has somehow "two-timed" the company; in cuckolding the boss he has been unfaithful to his job). After the penpals plan to meet in the café, Stewart sends a letter saying he’d seen her with such a handsome man he stayed away; he tells her he’s met the letter-writer, who’s fat, unemployed and ready to live on her salary rather than to support her. She confesses she really liked Jimmy Stewart and was mean to him only because she’d recently read a novel where the heroine, an actress at the comedie francaise, is cruel to men and they all fall in love with her—but she realizes her mistake was that she works not at the comedie francaise but at Matushek’s leather goods store. In The Shop Around the Corner, then, the central conflict is maintining masculinity and the masculine role of provider in an unstable economy.

In You’ve Got Mail, the protagonists are competitors rather than coworkers—a nod to women’s independent entrepreneurship, perhaps. But Kelley thinks that her life running the bookstore has been "small"—as though the breadth of experience can be measured by the volume of trade. Closing the bookstore is, she comments, like reliving her mother’s death, and the film thus suggests that women’s oedipal move from the world of the mother to that of the fathers is a healthy and necessary development—even if the father has, figuratively, killed the mother. Only by accepting and forgiving that loss can she move on to marriage and, implicitly, to having a daughter of her own. In turning to writing children’s books, she becomes a kind of independent entrepreneur (though we never get to the questions of publication and distribution), suggesting that those put out of business by large corporations can always turn to a kind of self-employment.

Nora Ephron has apparently said in interviews that the US is no longer a class society—and judging from the invisibility in this movie of unemployment, poverty, and low-paid wage work, one might think she is right. But the portrait of the unionization battle of Borders employees in Michael Moore’s documentary The Big One tells a different story.

More on 'You've Got Mail'...

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