Saturday, July 9, 2011

A 56K Movie for a 56K World

I will be catching up on the newest film releases before too long, with Larry Crowne and Horrible Bosses anxiously awaiting Mr. Anderson's approval. But this past week seeing a new film in the theaters hasn't been an option, and so now is the time for a new Hello, Mr. Anderson segment, which for now we'll call the Recommendation Pile. Today we set the WABAC machine to the glorious film Renaissance of the late '90's with the Internet-influenced You've Got Mail, recommended to my by my friend Anne, who has a penchant for the romantic comedy. Ah, 1998. I was a junior in high school back then, dreaming of the day that the Internet would be a true powerhouse. Before Twitter, before Facebook and before even MySpace, the world wide web was controlled by a vast soulless being referred to as America Online, or AOL. Evil it may have been, but AOL was the first choice for many technology users eager to keep in touch with distant relatives and friends without paying through the nose in long-distance charges (another cringe-worthy plague of the time). For a nominal fee, you could browse the web (such as it was) and chat with friends over a 56K modem, while AOL's popular e-mail system became a pop culture icon all on it's own, with the catchphrase "You've got mail" prevailing as one of the best-recognized sentences of the time, remaining well-known even today. AOL's popularity was so great that it really was no surprise that it spun off into the Hollywood mainstream. Reuniting Sleepless in Seattle stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan was a no-brainer, and while the film received less-than-stellar reviews, it was a monumental success. Another big step for AOL, which would go on to become one of the most successful and well-known companies of the new Millennium.

Definitely NOT 1998's Hollywood "it" couple
A remake of the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and directed by Nora Ephron, You've Got Mail makes for an unsteady romantic comedy by casting America's Sweethearts as booksellers who fall in love over the Internet but can't stand one another in real life. Joe Fox (Hanks) is a gregarious businessman who helps run his family's business, the mega-bookstore franchise Fox Books. Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) is an old-school book lover who runs the small bookstore she inherited from her mother called The Shop Around the Corner. Now Fox Books happens to be opening around the corner from Kathleen's independent store, threatening her business and instigating the feud between her and Joe. Little do either know that they are already friends, digital pen pals on AOL who constantly check their in-boxes for the latest letters from the other.

By this time I think they've forgotten that Joe Versus the Volcano even existed
If you ever want to see a typical romantic comedy, this will tide you over as much as anything else. Despite its at-the-time innovation of moving anonymous correspondence from the medium of paper to that of electricity, You've Got Mail feels dated after a decade on the shelf, and the fault doesn't entirely lay with the technology used. The entire film is exercise in contradictions; big vs, small, independent vs. corporate, proud vs. humble and real-life vs. online are all examples the film gives to express a simple premise: opposites attract, or that's at least what you are led to believe. To be fair, that might be a slight oversimplification of the matter at hand. The characters are fairly simple and instantly recognizable, yet easy to root for. The connections bringing them together are tenuous at best, and yet the ensuing romance somehow works. The story told is as cliched as it is somehow charming, finishing the Holy Trifecta of romantic comedy lore. There's really no reason that You've Got Mail should be as good as it is. The film just does what few titles can, believing in its story and seeing it through to the likely conclusion.

Some women never outgrow the whole "princess" thing...
As for the actors involved, you couldn't get much more obvious than superstars Hanks and Ryan. After achieving super-stardom together with Sleepless, the pair reconnecting in You've Got Mail was a major selling point to see the film. The reasoning for casting this pair was evident: romantic comedies are these stars' specialty, and the two's prior success paved the way for a seriously contrived box office win. Hanks carries his usual mix of charm and good nature, which has long made up for the fact that he's not the most handsome leading man. That he plays a romantic who's something of a douche with a heart of gold is a decent twist from his usual pure good guy persona, but not so big a stretch as to be un-Hanks-ian. Ryan will probably never attain the commercial success she received in her heyday, but You've Got Mail allows the former star to deliver in her usual cherubic girl next door, complete with off-center grin and enough cuteness to make a Care Bear retch. It's not her best role (hey, it's not ANYBODY'S best role) but it is the type she plays exceedingly well. Sadly, behind the lead pair are a bunch of forgettable secondary characters, rote caricatures who don't steal the spotlight but garner more attention than they probably deserve. It's handful of talented performers who share this distinction, as Greg Kinnear, Jean Stapleton, Parker Posey, Dave Chappelle, Heather Burns, Steve Zahn and Dabney Coleman combining to form less than the sum of their parts. The best is Kinnear, whose leftist, underdog-rooting journalist at least has a few good scenes. Still, nobody can steal the spotlight from Hanks and Ryan, which in this case is a very good thing.

Ooh, a murder mystery! That would be new!
While I have to admit that I liked You've Got Mail, my reaction to seeing the film was more despite its flaws than because of anything it does particularly well. Nora Ephron manages to create a completely uninspired story with big name stars, only to end the movie on a note that can only be described as PERFECT. For the first time in recent memory, I can honestly say that the best part of a film was that it ended and for that to be a compliment of the highest order. I'll likely never see it again, but I can think of worse romantic comedies released this year (I'm looking at you, Ashton Kutcher), and Hanks and Ryan really do make all the difference in making You've Got Mail likable. Does that mean you should see it? It's no When Harry Met Sally, but what is? For a traditional couples rental, you may find yourself enjoying this much more than you expect to. At the very least, you can hearken back to our earlier years and wonder how we ever got by before cable modems and DSL.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nicely done!!! While I love this movie, literally love it, overall I agree with your critique. This movie is so flawed. However, there are a couple things I don’t think you mentioned that I believe added to the likability of this movie; or in my case the love. The film itself was visually pleasing and the music was quirky and cute. Add to that the special something Tom and Meg bring to the screen and walaa… a pleasant ambience … like falling into a large comfy chair at the end of a long day or relaxing in a favorite Zen place….. is set. Also, while the simple storyline can easily be seen as a flaw without considering the movies mood set, when one allows the ambience to take center stage the storyline then becomes unobtrusive.