PG and it is listed on HBO Max's family friendly comedies. But I would like to point out that there are multiple discussions about cybersex. After all, it was 1998 and what else were people going to talk about? The movie treats infidelity pretty casually. Many of the relationships are casual, leading to casual marriages and casual divorces. There's also a weird and dated fat shaming joke. While I would probably give this movie a PG-13 rating, I'm not a member of the MPAA. PG.
DIRECTOR: Nora Ephron
I think there's a very clear line when it comes to product placement. For years, I've completely written off this movie as a means to capitalize on the America Online obsession of the mid-90s. I mean, it is. It blatantly is. It's named You've Got Mail. I watched it before, but I refused to lower my guard around this film because it was so blatantly trying to shill out AOL. Years later, I would watch The Shop Around the Corner and I would question whether or not the remake has any kind of merit. Again, watching something out of a sense of moral superiority probably isn't doing anyone any favors. Then I found out that it was one of my wife's favorite movies. I had a student who was obsessed with this one, so much so that she used a clip from You've Got Mail as one of her film projects.
I probably am not the guy to really break down the rom-com. I keep saying the same things over and over again. A lot of them seem pretty vapid. They're meant to be lighthearted and low-stakes. You've Got Mail has more to offer than I originally gave it credit for, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm exactly a fan of it. My wife predicted what direction I was going to take in this blog entry, and she's partially right. She knew that I was going to defend Greg Kinnear's character. I will do that, but I want to talk about the problem that I have with the protagonists. Both Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly aren't good people. I know that Joe Fox, as part of his entire character arc, is supposed to be slightly scummy. (Not over-the-top scummy, but a little bit gross.) But Kathleen throughout the film is advertised to be this absolutely perfect human being who is just starting to get her hands dirty while she defends her tiny business. But the movie starts off with both people happy with their significant others and waiting for them to leave so they can have their secret online relationship. While I was planning this blog out, I questioned whether the movie is clear that there is a romantic thing happening from moment one. While I would have found a platonic relationship online a little bit sketchy, both Joe and Kathleen confide in their friends how they feel sexually attracted to someone that they haven't met. Sure, there are elements of denial, but that element of the discussion is something that everyone is reading into their discussion. There also is the fact that both Joe and Kathleen seem to relish the idea that this discussion is hidden from their significant others. That's the part that makes it just a bit more forbidden. It's real gross and I can't stand when rom-coms feel the need to condone adultery.
Since my wife said that I would talk about Greg Kinnear, I could either not talk about him and allow my pride to dictate what I write about or just acknowledge that my wife knows me too well and that she's a smart lady. While Parker Posey's Patricia is the worst part of Joe Fox, Frank Navasky isn't necessarily the extreme version of Kathleen. (I'm having this epiphany while I write this, so be aware that magic is happening right now.) Patricia takes Joe Fox's big business archetype and highlights the dangers of that philosophy. She has mentally divorced herself from the little guy. There's a haunting self-awareness untethered by any sense of empathy that is very troubling. There are lines in the movie where Joe talks about his conscience being affected with these big acquisitions of little businesses. Patricia comments that Joe is the reason that these people are out of business, but she says it almost from a point of pride. She likes to see the shark devouring its prey. (I know the word "Fox" is right there, but I never get the vibe that a fox is an alpha predator.) Frank Navasky, I suppose, is a mirrored version of Kathleen as well, but he doesn't work as well. Frank is a crusader for causes. Kathleen is a crusader, but really for herself. She is the little bookstore owner and she's fighting this big corporate fish. I don't know if she's anti-corporate culture though. After all, she goes to a big supermarket with lots of cashiers. Frank is a crusader for all these causes. It doesn't make him altruistic though because he cares more about gaining readers than making real change. (It's weird that his article didn't have a financial follow through though.)
While it makes sense for Joe to separate from Patricia due to her complete lack of humanity (illuminated by being stuck in an elevator), Frank and Kathleen shouldn't be having the problems that they do. Frank has problems. He's not a perfect character. He's extremely egotistical (I know what that's like, but I kind of earn my egotism). He's slightly willfully naive that people are flirting with him. But he's also a passionate guy. He really loves what he loves. He appreciates the attention that goes his way, which isn't the best trait. But he's also not doing anything actively wrong, unlike Patricia. I feel like Ephron kind of gets that Frank doesn't suck as much as people make it out that he sucks. He, after all, is the dumper as opposed to the dumpee. It does read a bit of suspension of disbelief with Frank's timing. It is the most convenient breakup imaginable for Kathleen. The more she is focused on Joe, the more easy going that Frank becomes. I'm not a fan of this moment.
There's something really messed up about this story. The movie takes the very polarizing stance of corporate culture versus small business. We should all be on Kathleen's team. Her "Shop Around the Corner" is the bookstore with heart. While Ephron does a commendable job of avoiding demonizing Joe's attitude towards bookselling, Kathleen is the clear underdog hero in the story. There's a moment where Joe plays up the dramatic irony and discovers that Kathleen is his secret correspondent before Kathleen discovers the inverse. They're about to meet. Kathleen is at the table and Joe decides to take advantage of this power dynamic. Having that information gives Joe all of the control. Joe becomes playful and teasing in this moment. He causes Kathleen to fly into a rage because she's vulnerable about being stood up and humiliated by her rival. Joe's decision to maintain his anonymity actually affects a lot of the story. If Joe, in this moment, revealed that he's the guy on the other end of the Internet, Kathleen's store probably would have been opened. The Shop Around the Corner could have become a subsidiary of Fox Books or something, independently run but sporting the values that the larger corporate structure could offer. But Joe's selfishness comes across as charming for the rest of the film. He puts her out of business and because he's a nice guy, she forgives him. Heck she even falls in love with him. The movie ends with this joyous revelation that Joe has been the secret admirer the entire time. But if she thought back, she would realize that Joe could have prevented the closing of her mother's shop. That's a little depressing.
The title, You've Got Mail, is the worst choice of the film. Yeah, the movie has dated itself with modernization. It has taken the Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner and stressed how this isn't its father's rom-com. But the story shouldn't be titled around the Internet. The fundamental themes surrounding two separate people's love of books in the Internet age. They fight and scrap, not knowing that they are wildly in love with each other. The Internet is an important part, but it is simply the vehicle that surrounds much deeper themes. It's kind of like naming The Dark Knight "Batmobile". It's such a misstep for far more complex themes.
It's not a bad movie. It's very very cute. I love The Shop Around the Corner. I love the idea of infusing books into it. But there are some really weird things that are being said about the casual nature of relationships. No one seems to fight for anything in this movie to service the feel-goodery of the film as a whole. It's cute, but is that always enough?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.