You've Got M@il

Nora Ephron is at it again. It would be so easy to say that her directing is harmless, boring, and middle-class with a slight touch of the quaint for all the aunties and grandmothers who might be sitting in the audience, but this would not be quite the truth. After returning from her last directorial sojourn into other-worldliness starring John Travolta as the unforgettable (unfortunately) archangel Michael, she's out in another kind of space this time, trying to access us with love along the modems.

Kathleen Kelley (Meg Ryan) is completely devoted to running her children's bookshop and she dearly loves the work which is her life. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is a man on top as well as about town, about to open yet another New York superchain bookstore (in Kelley's neighborhood this time around), but whose own taste in private reading is preferably restricted to the stockmarket reports. These two are destined to become enemies and, of course, eventually (via cyberspace and according to the feeble script), to fall in love. "Pride and Prejudice" (hey, that's a book!) not only serves in the movie as a topic of conversation, but is deviously suggested as an allusion to the existing problems between the two. Unwittingly, to a point, the fond and fair flirtation between NY152 and Shopgirl remains restricted to a spot on the chat line where "e-mail" is more like "eek-mail."

But Nora has clout. The mere fact that we see Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks selling this bill of fare is enough to knock one for a loop. These three may have been matched together well for the fabulous "Sleepless in Seattle," but on that occasion they had a decent script (notabene written by Nora Ephron) directed by Rob Reiner. The present offering was written by Nora and co-authored by Nora's sister Delia.

Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear make appearances in smaller roles as the respective existing love interests attached to the two leads. Neither one is given sufficient dialogue or screen time to build the kind of sturdy character portrayal we might expect from them. Pity.

What kind of world is the real world they live in? Well, wander the streets of the Upper New York West Side and getting a gander of Starbuck's and Zabar's will give you not only an idea of the sponsorship, but also of the environment. Yes, there's activity in Central Park too. The proposition seems to be: In the beginning they live constantly alongside each other in a state of unawareness; will they come together and be together by the end?

Kathleen Kelley of the Little (book) Shop Around the Corner succumbs absolutely, by the time the tale is told, to that characteristic G.B. Shaw described more than a century ago as "womanliness" and, finally, she can't wait to fall into the arms of her knight, be he metaphorically white or black, once he has completely and utterly destroyed her heritage and birthright (personified in the shape of the "Little Shop" which her father had established many years before. What would Freud say?). At the same time, the gentleman in question, the sly Mr. Fox, has symbolically reduced the craft of writing and production of books into merely another mass market for the utilization of pulp where no one really cares about the article sold as long as it becomes an economically viable investment which (as an added extra) serves as a basis for witty discussion at receptions and dinner parties. (Normally, I would refrain from discussing the end, but, let's face it, any film with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks has to be heading toward resolution.)

Although this movie purports to be a modern adaptation of the black & white film classic "The Little Shop Around the Corner" (with James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan) one may have to search hard to find the path of recognition and anything approaching the cleverness or humor found in the original. To put it simply, Lubitsch must be turning in his grave. (And it wouldn't be hard to go slightly further and imagine Miklos Laszlo, who wrote the original stage play "Parfumerie," screaming in his coffin for "Smelling Salts.") The present version began it's life after executive producer Julie Durk saw the classic film and thought it would be "a great movie to remake." She optioned the rights from Turner pictures (who now own them) and the rest is DIStory. (Please, for all our sakes, keep Julie out of the archives in the future, guys.)

Oh, and as for Nora's clout: watch out, it packs a subtly dangerous wallop. It seems to be telling us that anything is possible in today's market and acceptable as long as it increases the economic strength of those on top. Devastation lies in the path of those who try to maintain smaller values whether they be ethical, artistic or honest. One must become subservient to one's conqueror in order to survive in the world of the mighty and escape destruction. There is no room for creative and individual endeavor on a small scale any longer. These are but a few of the many messages that this movie wants to convey. Some clout, eh? As I said, it would be simple to say Nora Ephron is being boring and middle-class with a touch of the quaint for all the aunties and grandmothers sitting in the audience, but don't ever forget that harmless she is not.

And as far as "You've Got M@il" is concerned, don't bother responding.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett