You want a new timeless classic? I’ll give you one, by asserting that enough time has now passed to class that most excellent romcom, You’ve Got Mail, as a classic of our times. Nora Ephron’s 1998 sequel-of-sorts to Sleepless in Seattle (another debatable classic, although for me, it just doesn’t have the same charm as its Upper West Side follow-on), is a film I have grown up with, and that I return to time and time again as a much-beloved favourite. Indeed, it is so universally brilliant that I am finding it hard to know where to begin in describing its merits under the risk of resorting to an arbitrary list.
Let us begin with the obvious: the dynamic relationship between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is palpably real. Presumably, they had settled quite comfortably into their roles as romantic counterparts to one another, having previously worked with Ephron for the 1993 adaptation of An Affair to Remember, and John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano in 1990. You’ve Got Mail is brimming with self-indulgent cultural references, and Kathleen Kelly’s (Ryan) love of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice not only serves as a counterpart to the quick-witted Godfather quotes riposted by Joe Fox (Hanks), but reflects the pride and prejudice circulating between the two central characters. It is a very satisfying moment of mise-en-abîme when Kathleen confesses in one of her emails to Fox: “I have read Pride and Prejudice two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like ‘Thither. Mischance. Felicity.’ I’m always in agony over whether Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are really going to get together. Ah! Read it. I know you’ll love it.” The scene cuts to Joe, flicking hopelessly through the novel, giving it a courageous attempt, and then abandoning it. Clearly, Kathleen doesn’t know him as well as she thinks.
And the reality is that she really doesn’t, since he is actually her business rival, being the co-owner of the Big-Bad-Bookstore-Chain (a B&N tribute, perhaps), and the ultimate cause of her independent children’s bookshop closing. The premise of the story is not new – especially since You’ve Got Mail is a re-dressing of several previous adaptations of Miklós László’s play, Illatszertár. These two characters, mouthpieces for their conflicting approaches to book-business, spar publicly with one another whilst never realising for a moment that they have been anonymously emailing each other, intimately, all the while.
That is a partial lie, as you may have guessed. It is Joe who first discovers the identity of his online love-interest, and the film’s wonderful finalé – Harry Nilsson crooning Over the Rainbow in the background – sees Kathleen putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and realising that Joe, and AOL-user NY152, are one and the same. She cries. I cry. It’s all very emotional. Even Brinkley the Golden Retriever wants in on some of the action.
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are key to the success of the movie, but there are two other aspects that also contribute to its enduring charm. One aspect is so captivating, that it saw me heading off to New York City for the first time, on my own, when I was only twenty-one. NYC (or more specifically, Manhattan), congures the usual images of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Macy’s, The Met, Fifth Avenue, Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty, and so on. Those are the iconic sights usually equated with the city, and as an eager young tourist, I was keen to see them all. However – and I’m sure you know where I’m going with this – I also wanted to visit Riverside Park. I wanted to wander around Upper West Side so as to soak up the tree-lined streets with their uniformed stoops leading up to beautiful front doors inlaid upon the façade of even more beautiful brownstone buildings. My hostel was a little south of Harlem (W 104th Street, if I remember correctly), giving me a great base from which to explore the neighbourhoods of You’ve Got Mail. And that’s what I did (as well as visiting those aforementioned places), because Upper West Side in You’ve Got Mail is a character in and of itself.
Autumn (“Don’t you love New York in the Fall?”) is the most appropriate time of the year – I think – to watch this film. (To be more specific, I’d recommend watching it pre-Halloween, around the time that the leaves are starting to change colour and we’ve all accepted, perhaps resignedly, that Summer is now over.) In fact, You’ve Got Mail follows the seasons through as a means of time-keeping. It starts in Autumn, its nadir is around Christmastime, and fittingly, it culminates in Spring. All of the action, meanwhile, never deviates from the backdrop of Upper West Side.
Which leads me to the other aspect of the movie’s success, which is Nora Ephron, and her sister, Delia, who both collaborated in writing the screenplay. It is the script, brimming with witty, memorable, eternally quotable lines, that gives You’ve Got Mail the edge in being newly-categorised as a timeless classic. Aside from creating a character out of Upper West Side (I am sure that they must have had a love affair with the neighbourhood), their ability to write a screenplay that is at once heartfelt and humorous, is commendable. I can think of very few other films that make me cry and laugh in equal measure. The Ephron sisters seem to understand the poetic rhythm of language in such a remarkable way, without every making the dialogue sound pretentious or unnatural. It is fitting that this is a film about people involved with books, written by women who have been just as involved with books – and it shows.
I would like to end with a few of my favourite quotes. It’s a suitable thing to do, considering that all I have done in this article is fangirl unashamedly about a film that has contributed to the moulding of my character throughout my more formative years. In one email to Joe, Kathleen writes: “The odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something. But I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”
Another of my favourites is also in an email written by Kathleen. The phrase “dear void” has ingrained itself into my brain over the years; I sometimes mutter it to myself, like a mantra, when faced with anxieties. This quote speaks so profoundly to me that I am often moved to tears by it whilst watching the film. As an aside, I am sure others wonder too, about whether they have ended up where they are because they “haven’t been brave”. These are, I think, universal anxieties.
In context, Kathleen writes:
“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life – well, valuable, but small – and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around? I don’t really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void.”
In all honesty, I couldn’t possibly go any further in appreciating each memorable line or moment from You’ve Got Mail, because every other line or moment is memorable for its wit and its charm. And so you have a winning formula for a timeless classic: two phenomenal actors with wonderful chemistry, a prepossessing backdrop, and top-notch writing. Therefore, I can do no more than let the film speak for itself, and end with one final, delightful, moment of insight from Kathleen’s friend and ex-employee:
Birdie: You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life. Oh, I know it doesn’t feel like that. You feel like a big fat failure now. But you’re not. You are marching into the unknown armed with… [pause]
Nothing. Have a sandwich.