You’ve Got Mail
Here’s a test: What’s the next number in this sequence? 88, 91, 101,.... Give up? It’s the Majestic! Those are the big apartment houses on Central Park West from sixty-eighth street to seventy-second. Followed, of course, by the Dakota, 135, 145, 151 – why go on? If you’re a West Side kid you know them as well as you know Citarella, Fine & Shapiro, Zabar’s, and H&H Bagels. And if you’re old enough you remember the Tip Toe Inn and Schrafft’s, above which my great-uncle Barney Beaber had his furrier’s business, and Rappaport’s, where your mother took you to get your clothes and which had the amazing fluoroscope machine that could look at the bones of your feet to help you get fitted for shoes.
I now live in a place where you have to drive thirty-five miles each way to get a decent bagel, and so Nora Ephron’s film "You’ve Got Mail" speaks volumes to me. It’s a paean to Upper West Side life, and if there still were a vacant apartment around there, I would bet that after seeing this movie millions of the great unwashed, meaning the out-of-town goyim, will be standing around bidding for it. My wife, a shiksa from Spokane, counts the days till she next visits my mother, who lives in the Mayfair (on West 72nd, for those of you who are geographically challenged).
Here’s the story, which is a variation on the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film "The Shop Around the Corner." Tom Hanks is Joe Fox, scion of the mega-bookstore chain Fox Books, which you can read as Barnes & Noble, now moving into the Upper West Side with a mega-bookstore, and about to crush Meg Ryan’s charming children’s bookstore called, of course, the Shop Around the Corner. Hate, hate. In person, they circle each other warily and suspiciously, like cats. But at the same time they are carrying on an email correspondence to which they each confide their inmost thoughts, without, of course, identifying themselves or realizing whom they’re talking to. And their correspondence is actually the best-written part of the film, thoughtful, unexpectedly perceptive, and always interesting to eavesdrop on.
Now I should point out that this is the third movie in which Ephron (herself a West Side kid), together with her sister Delia, has written of lovers, cutely unmatched at the start but destined as sure as Starbuck’s makes lattes to end up in a clinch two hours later. The first was "When Harry Met Sally...," the second "Sleepless in Seattle." She’s directed the last two (Rob Reiner did the first). Though I loved "Harry" and liked the script of "Sleepless," I thought her directing of it was weak and conventional, with predictable shots, derivative action and blocking, and a lack of energy from her actors – a pedestrian work without any visual or emotional freshness.
Here, in what is essentially variation number three on the theme, she does a good deal better with both her camera eye and her stars. Ryan, who has more tics than a rhinoceros if she’s not controlled, manages to keep most of them to herself, though early on in the film you’ll notice that she still talks to people with her eyes closed. Hanks, in his unassuming way, is brilliant. It’s easy to underestimate his acting – I’m guilty of it – because he needs so little to do his work well. We can actually read his mind and know his thoughts, because as an actor he’s transparent to us. It’s the hardest part of the craft and art of acting, to communicate without seeming to do it, and only the very best film actors can do it.
Structurally, the film has some problems. Because Ephron can’t let her characters find each other till the end, she spends most of the second hour trying to keep them apart, and she’s chosen a bad way to do it. She makes Hanks needlessly cruel, tormenting Ryan repeatedly; it’s out of character for someone we know as well as we know him from his email and his relationships with others in the movie, and it stops the film’s forward motion dead.
Nevertheless, there are wonderful moments dropped in like little jewels throughout (Jean Stapleton, as Ryan’s older friend and store bookkeeper, offering money to save it: "I’m rich, you know. I bought Intel at six."). And the portrait of my old neighborhood – the emotional one as well as the physical one – is a delight. Janet Maslin in The New York Times says the film makes the West Side look like Paris. Well, it is.