[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
Joel and Ethan Coen may have wasted a terrific Tom Hanks performance and some clever ideas in their remake of The Ladykillers, but Nora Ephron bested them on both counts six years prior, when she blandly updated one of Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest romances for the digital age. The Ladykillers ended up a hot mess for want of the Coen brothers’ usual lunatic wit, whereas You’ve Got Mail suffers from the opposite problem: It positively reeks of Ephron. Time and again she sets up a great set piece or exhibits some real insight into how romantic comedies work, then shoots herself in the foot with her unending need to make everything cute and sitcom-y. We’re all familiar with the Lubitsch Touch; Ephron’s style is more like an unintentionally painful elbow jab.
I have an odd relationship with You’ve Got Mail. On the one hand, I find it grating and insufferable. Yet on the other, my wife—an inspiringly intelligent woman of discerning aesthetic taste—loves this film with a passionate loyalty that makes me nearly insecure. When she’s had a bad day and needs a reassuring, comforting film, it’s always You’ve Got Mail. When she’s had a good day and wants to watch something light and bubbly, chances are she’ll at least ask me to put on You’ve Got Mail. It’s never Sleepless in Seattle, or When Harry Met Sally…, or anything with Julia Roberts. It’s always this modestly successful, instantly dated piece of ’90s nostalgia that no one else I know has even seen in the last 10 years. So the truth is that I’ve watched the film three, maybe four times from beginning to end—more than many films I claim to love. Each time, I’ve seen how it brings this wonderful, complex woman so much joy, and as such I can’t help but view it in the most positive light possible.
You might then take it with a grain of salt when I tell you that You’ve Got Mail isn’t entirely bad. Its last half-hour, in fact, is perfectly charming and perhaps the most affecting recreation of a classic romantic comedy tone I’ve seen in a recent American film. Ephron’s work is so frustrating because she really does know how to tell a breezily romantic story when she wants to, but she has an apparently overwhelming desire to make her films inoffensively bawdy, technologically hip, and blandly urbane. She’s clearly nostalgic for days gone by (whether Lubitsch’s, Leo McCarey’s, or Julia Child’s), but equally committed to staying trendy and proving her Upper West Side cultural bona fides. Like all of her films, You’ve Got Mail starts off cute and perky, then eventually becomes a mere advertisement for a certain kind of femininity (strong yet sensitive, young but still old enough to be self-conscious about it, well-heeled, white) and a certain kind of romance (non-threatening, barely sexual, superficially intellectual, white).
In Lubitsch’s original, two perpetually sparring co-workers fall in love via pen-pal letters, without realizing that they’ve been conversing together all the while. In the Ephron film, the lovey-dovey takes place through a new-fangled medium called “E-Mail,” and they’re combative because he owns a massive chain of warehouse-sized stores that stands to annihilate her quaint children’s bookshop (named, cutely, The Shop Around the Corner, though it’s never made clear why a children’s business would be named after a decade-old adult romantic comedy).
Ephron similarly pilfered and “updated” the plot of An Affair to Remember to reflect trendy technology in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle. To put it most charitably, the implication of Ephron’s nostalgia seems to be that the past—specifically the Hollywood romantic-comedy past—is still relevant to our comparatively bustling, cynical lives. As a slogan, or the guiding principle of a lucrative career, this has an undeniable appeal. But it reveals a deep misunderstanding of her source material, which is almost never as gleefully innocent as Ephron seems to believe. I’ve already written about the profound ambivalence of An Affair to Remember’s gorgeous ending, and there’s a similar pathos lurking underneath the charming veneer of The Shop Around the Corner; these movies require no “updating” to remain relevant, and, in fact, all of Ephron’s updates are to the stories’ detriment.
In Lubitsch’s film, the lead couple spar and bicker as colleagues in a classy but struggling Budapest gift shop, and one of the movie’s greatest shots occurs when they’re forced by the store owner to work late, and thus both miss the date that would have brought them together, perhaps prematurely. Too annoyed and self-pitying to even bother fighting, they’re made to decorate a window-display Christmas tree together, and Lubitsch employs a rare zoom-in two-shot to frame James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan both scowling at their respective decorations and lost in thought. In a half-second, Lubitsch expresses not only how far-away-yet-close these lovers truly are, but also the degree to which internal fantasy informs our real-life romances. If, in fact, the two were allowed to leave on time and meet each other for coffee, they’d be heartbroken to discover the truth behind their correspondence. It’s only after Stewart discovers the truth, and sets out explicitly to become worthy of Sullavan’s fantasy, that the two reach their happy ending. This resolution is not played cynically (the movie’s ending is wonderful, and built for Kleenex), but it’s so graceful and honest that it conveys a kind of universal wisdom.
Lubitsch’s universalism—this is a Hollywood movie directed by an Americanized German Jew, starring two American gentiles as Hungarian co-workers—is in direct contrast to Ephron’s Woody Allenish cultural chauvinism, and she adds nothing to the Shop Around the Corner concept by relocating it to the Upper West Side and crowding her script with tired Big Apple-isms, like one character’s treatise on the metaphysical implications of ordering at Starbucks.
Her couple’s capitalist confrontation likewise only muddies the original film’s simple beauty, and in fact makes their whole relationship dubious from the get-go. Ryan’s little store is forced to close, her friends are left without jobs, and since her mother founded the store and Ryan’s character literally grew up in it, it’s no exaggeration to say that Hanks’s actions decimate her entire life—socially, financially, and spiritually. Even if such a man were as lovable as Tom Hanks, I think it’s a stretch to say that a woman in that position could fall in love with him. Ephron’s solution is to effectively jettison the entire anti-corporate subplot altogether. Ryan simply moves on, aided by a lucrative new job offer. And while there’s something to be said for looking on the bright side, it goes beyond mere therapy to fall head over heels for the guy who squashed your whole existence like a bug.
The irony is that, once Ephron ditches the whole social impetus of her remake, the movie settles in to a lovely rhythm, guided by the rapport between the two leads and a lovely sequence of initially platonic days out together. Like Stewart’s character, Hanks’s knows the truth about their relationship, and while there’s a twinge of manipulation in both of their actions, it’s redeemed by a genuine desire to be liked by their female counterparts. At the heart of both stories is a deep respect, and a disarming message that men need to somehow become worthy of the romance that women want.
So why does my wife love this movie so much? In part because she loves Tom Hanks, though she thankfully enjoys The ’Burbs and The Money Pit, both of which I could watch any day of the week, almost as much. But her affection makes sense, since You’ve Got Mail, like all Ephron films, is a ruthlessly efficient affection-delivery machine. It’s so thoroughly contrived that one is either repelled by the contrivance or endeared to the little sanitized world that it creates. And alas, the bigger a pop-culture magpie you are, the more offended you’ll likely be by Ephron’s buttery, conflict-free riffs on older, better, more complicated sources. (Much of You’ve Got Mail is set to Harry Nilsson songs, but only his wistful ones; it takes a special kind of vanilla mentality to make one of the century’s most wonderfully perverse singer-songwriters into a symbol of rom-com sweetness.) So I can watch this film (and probably will at least a few more times in my life, God help me) and appreciate Ephron’s talents as a confectioner. What I can’t abide is her insistence on rummaging through the cultural past and plucking only those ingredients that make older eras seems cleaner and sweeter. That’s delusion and propaganda, not romance.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.