Second-Class Mail

Co-written and directed by Nora Ephron

Conceived and perfectly timed for the holiday season, You've Got Mail boasts a formidable pedigree. It's an updated remake of Ernst Lubitsch's much-loved The Shop Around the Corner, crossed with director, co-writer and co-producer Nora Ephron and sister Delia Ephron's popular Sleepless in Seattle. Reuniting the relentlessly perky Meg Ryan and the irresistibly likable Tom Hanks, Mail can't live up to its sturdy lineage, especially with the earlier work's fascinating class conflict now all but erased. Determined instead to make us believe that these two New Yorkers are destined for only each other, it works overtime to please, a bit too much at two hours' running time for what should be a much more briskly paced 95-minute film. Nevertheless, with considerable fluffy charm, Mail capitalizes on the romantic allure of "what ifs" and the plaintive regrets of "ships passing in the night."

The simple plot quickly connects Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox via a chat room on the Internet. She has inherited and manages her cherished mother's small children's bookshop called the Shop Around the Corner. Joe runs the huge, discount bookstore chain called Fox and Sons, with his father's and grandfather's blessing. When Fox opens a gargantuan branch in an Upper West Side neighborhood, he drives Kathleen out of business. Competitors in an uneven (and unexplored) fight, Kathleen and Joe square off against each other professionally and personally, never suspecting they're e-mail buddies, until he suggests they meet.

Mail has the savvy to summon our nostalgia for neighborhood communities and for the cherished personal attention nourished by the best small businesses. The Shop's friendly, casual environment (there's even a storylady) contrasts emphatically with the intimate exchanges but guarded anonymity of e-mail. Even online names reflect dramatic differences: Joe is NY152, and Kathleen is Shopgirl. This dichotomy between the postmodern and old-fashioned worlds extends to Dan Davis' production design -- Fox's plastic and chrome sterility and spaciousness versus the Shop's cluttered closeness and down-home appeal. Further, the clothes, selected by two-time Academy Award winner Albert Wolsky, reveal personality differences -- her sweater sets and his suits (Kathleen even castigates Joe as "nothing but a suit" in one scene). As the relationship progresses, Fox's "business uniforms" give way to more casual wear.

Less effective, George Fenton's score tells us often and exactly how to feel, and the film's music is at its most appalling when moronic songs strain futilely and awkwardly to fit the scene ("Splish Splash" -- please!). The "holiday cheer" scenes also come across as forced with a thoroughly unpleasant performance of "Tomorrow." In fact, all the scenes featuring children feel "movie cute" and out of joint with the adult longings.

None of this matters much in terms of Mail's attraction -- that is, it's the perfect movie for this time of year, modeling exactly what we must do to enjoy our holidays. It sidesteps all the tough, potentially controversial issues and asks only that we enjoy spending time with these individuals. Like some of our own family's and friends' visits, it drags on too long. But, truth be told, few relatives are as easy on the nerves as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, a perfect pair with her vivaciousness and his complementary calm. The pleasure, through the last half of the film, of watching Hanks think and calculate is, by itself, sufficient to make You've Got Mail a welcome respite from Christmas' frenzied excess.

-- Diane Carson

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