YOU'VE GOT MAIL

PG

-By David Noh


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Miklos Laszlo's charming play Parfumerie is an astonishingly durable work. It has provided the basis for Ernst Lubitsch's comic masterpiece, The Shop Around the Corner; a rather sticky Judy Garland vehicle, In the Good Old Summertime; the enchanting Broadway musical, She Loves Me, and now this latest Nora Ephron opus. Here, Joe (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen (Meg Ryan) are the endlessly quarreling mis-mates who unknowingly romance each other via the Internet. Ephron has shrewdly updated the story to e-mail-mad Manhattan, with Kathleen the embattled proprietress of a little bookshop struggling against the behemoth superstore forces Joe is promoting.

You've Got Mail is pretty typical Ephron: shiny to look at, with myriad clever moments, the whole thing awash in more sentiment than Frank Capra ever dared. It plays out like a more elaborate variant of her Sleepless in Seattle, with the same stars forever waffling until they finally get together. The film is also a valentine to Manhattan's Upper West Side: fall leaves wafting down on Columbus Avenue cafs as Kathleen exults over how much she adores autumn in New York. The malling of the Big Apple, as represented by rich developer Joe, although a clever gambit and timely in the extreme, rather robs the story of the winning intimacy it had in its other incarnations with the couple toiling together in the same shop.

Ephron does retain the play's central scene, wherein an unseen Joe realizes the dismaying true identity of his mysterious correspondent as she waits to meet him in a caf. The sequence is completely actor- and director-proof, instilling in audiences a shared droll anxiety and impish delight, no matter what the context. Following this, it's up to the filmmakers to end the heroine's torment and wrap things up quickly. Here, Ephron errs by prolonging the final clinch for so long that Joe comes across as sadistically manipulative, as he continues the deception. By the time he finally decides to give the poor girl a break, as a hideous version of 'Over the Rainbow' shamelessly floods the soundtrack (Ephron should never be allowed in the music studio), you may feel that Kathleen was better off with her original boyfriend, especially as played here by the always disarming Greg Kinnear. (He's in a Ralph Bellamy role again, except he always comes off as top rather than second banana.)

Ephron owes much to the stem-necked Ryan, who makes Kathleen a worthy successor to Margaret Sullavan (in the Lubitsch) and Garland. She may not have the deliciously pretentious perversity of Sullavan or the melting musical chops and goofy timing of Garland, but she somehow instills Ephron's woozy mush with more depth than it often deserves. There's a moment when, utterly broken down by her corporate rival, she wanders into a superstore and sees for the first time how undeniably efficacious its methods can be. The expression on her piquant face says more than all the zingers and sappy I-miss-my-Mommy arias Ephron can come up with. (There's a truly wet moment, however, when she looks back at her emptied shop and visualizes herself as a child romping with her dead mother, strings soaring away.) Her pert delivery and brisk comic reactions give the caf scene full value, as well.

Squint-eyed Hanks' yuppie role is definitely less appealing, and it must be said that he doesn't do much to redeem it. He looks a bit old for Ryan now, and there's a certain pompousness that has settled in which somehow emphasizes his character's unappetizing side. His romping with the child actors who play his brother and aunt (oh, that Nora!) has a distinctly rote feel to it, and he emerges as something very much like an asshole in the climactic scenes which have him mercilessly baiting Ryan. A sequence in which he supposedly charms a Zabar's cashier comes off as offensively condescending. If anything, this is the performance Hanks should have given in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Ephron has wisely surrounded her stars with a bright supporting cast. Parker Posey is very funny, sinking those big Ali McGraw teeth into the part of Joe's selfish girlfriend. David Chappelle does what he can as the only minority present who isn't behind a cash register or providing background color. Jean Stapleton dithers as the too-aptly-named Birdie. More could have been made of Dabney Coleman as Joe's equally luckless-in-love Dad. Jane Addams, in one scene, steals the entire movie away, as a talk show host patently eager to get into Kinnear's pants on-air.

--David Noh


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