Living in Synergy

You've Got Mail
area theaters, starts Friday

The Shop Around the Corner
Oak Street Cinema
nightly at 7:30 p.m.; starts Sunday

Meg Ryan is so cute. Let the princess of perk gab all she wants about how she can be so much more than a romantic heroine; sure, she may have made twice as many serious films as romantic comedies, but please, does anyone actually remember those movies? To most of us, she will always be Sally, Maggie, or Annie. Bumbling and sweet, idealistic and naive, accessible and lonely, this woman embodies the sanctity of our romantic fantasies and earns our trust. She'll find love; she won't let us down.

The latest incarnation of the Ryan heroine, You've Got Mail's Kathleen Kelly, is no exception. Kathleen charms us from the start with all that ebullient sincerity: She has the same unabashed joy and giddy hope for love that we do. As she logs onto AOL, pert with anticipation, she lights up with the words "You've got mail" like only Meg Ryan can. Her eyes shine, her nose crinkles, her skin glows, and her entire body beams as that little mailbox icon swells and its flag pops. (I check my own AOL account with embarrassing frequency, and I'd never before noticed how phallic that little gesture is.) Oh, the delight: She's got e-mail from NY152, the handle of a gent whom she met when she stumbled into a chat room. One thing led to another...and now they're virtually in love.

She doesn't know it, but the NY152 handle belongs to Tom Hanks...er, Joe Fox. Lucky for her. Tom Hanks is so cute. He's gentle, lovelorn, and has such a nonthreatening hairline. We meet the '98 Hanks as his Joe lovingly writes witty yet tender e-mails to Shopgirl@aol.comabout how much he adores his lush golden retriever, Brinkley. Brinkley is so cute. Much like Ryan and Hanks, he can portray a range of emotions, all the while sustaining his Hi-Pro glow. The union of the three is inevitable from these first moments. After all, this is a Nora Ephron/Hanks/Ryan movie, where that anonymous stranger you've met on the Internet is not a nudie-magazine psychopath; where people in the book biz can afford to live in posh loft apartments on the Upper West Side; and where no one ever, ever, ever has trouble logging onto AOL. Alluring, isn't it?

And, in this world, it's only a minor inconvenience that both Kathleen and Joe are in serious relationships. There's just no question about the morality of their online courtship conducted behind the backs of live-in lovers, because Joe and Kathleen are meant to be. And that's that.

Of course, there are real obstacles here. Kathleen adores Pride and Prejudice; Joe knows only The Godfather. Kathleen has a PowerBook; Joe has a ThinkPad. And, most important, Kathleen runs a little independent children's bookstore called The Shop Around the Corner, while Joe presides over Fox Books--the big, bad megabookstore opening a branch just down the street.

Infidelity be damned, this movie has other plotty fish to fry--and another locus for its morality. Kathleen's store is independent, and therefore she is authentic, passionate, and intellectual. By virtue of being a franchise, Fox Books is soulless, impersonal, and filled with illiterate employees. (The fact that Kathleen visits Starbucks on a daily basis, all the while complaining that her neighborhood is losing its character due to chain stores, is surely a deliberate irony, right?) It's hip to be indie--and in Ephron's world, Fox Books is a sign of capitalism gone horribly awry.

But of course, You've Got Mail is fundamentally a chain store in itself. Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan are all top salespeople for a franchise far bigger than Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and maybe even the Gap, for they sell the very marketable, very comforting, very saleable mythology of Love. Meg Ryan assures us again and again: Whether it be through the best friend we've had for years, a complete stranger whose voice we've heard on the radio, or the person we most despise, love will find us when we least expect it. We live vicariously through her as her eyes spill over with disbelieving bliss at the end of each of these movies. This is the way it's supposed to work. We'll all get to feel like Meg Ryan in the end.

Not to say it doesn't work. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll reveal that my reaction to this movie was a bit colored by real life: I am getting married in two weeks to someone I met by pure chance. I am a sap. I was taken in by the movie and its manipulative, shiny charms--hook, line, and sinking feeling. I cried. Twice. Which is exactly what my fellow members of this target audience and I are supposed to do. Each element of Ephron's movie is deliberately and blatantly crafted to jerk our tears--and to perpetuate a mythology that has kept us going to the movies for eight decades.

But do we really need such a hard sell? Take the decidedly unfranchiselike Ernst Lubitsch film The Shop Around the Corner (1940), upon which You've Got Mail is based. Unlike its spawn, Lubitsch's film tells its story so gently that we don't realize we've been watching a love story until the end. The film takes place in 1939 Budapest, in a small luggage store called Matuschek & Co.--a shop around the corner from Budapest's main drag, presenting a little slice of life. In the atmosphere hangs depression and war; there are no cute golden retrievers here.

Like Kathleen and Joe, Jimmy Stewart's Alfred has been exchanging anonymous letters with Margaret Sullavan's Klara. Each quickly falls in love with his/her unseen correspondent, but, little-known to them--or to us, for a while--they've been working (and bickering) alongside their secret loves at Matuschek's. The truth is revealed to us so delicately that the moment barely registers as the film quietly continues to create its world. Soon, Alfred realizes the truth as well; he lets Klara remain in the dark while she continues to berate him. Alfred stares at her, half-enchanted and half-bemused at the turn of fate, and mutters to her, "People seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find the inner truth." Suffice it to say that this sentiment was not among the elements borrowed by Ephron's shiny-happy remake--whose only inner truth lies right on the surface.

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