Junk 'Mail' Nora Ephron's new film, "You've Got Mail," spams the viewer with the predictable and bland. Even stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks can't push that envelope.

December 18, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The results are in. Lightning can't strike twice.

Nora Ephron, who made the overpraised but widely adored "Sleepless in Seattle," has re-convened the magic couple of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan for the romantic comedy "You've Got Mail." The result may deserve top honors as this year's most egregious cinematic travesty. This ungainly remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 romance "The Shop Around the Corner" commits the unforgiveable sin of attempting to improve on perfection. Indeed, between "Meet Joe Black," "Psycho" and now this, Hollywood obviously needs to be reminded of a timeless verity: it's the bad movies that need to be remade, you idiots, not the good ones.

Just like in "Sleepless in Seattle," Ryan and Hanks are tantalizingly separated throughout much of "You've Got Mail." As a mismatched couple -- she owns a tiny children's bookstore, he is the scion of a mega-book store that moves in down the street -- who meet and fall in love on the Internet, they spend the first half of the movie tapping away at their laptops, muttering to themselves and biting their lips with more angst than Bill Clinton.

Things don't pick up once they finally meet. As "You've Got Mail" lurches to its completely predictable conclusion, it thickens and finally stalls, as tone-deaf as the little girl who sings "Tomorrow" in just one of this movie's many insufferable scenes.

More than the Lubitsch film, "You've Got Mail" comes closer to "Pillow Talk," the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romance that revolved around love, loathing and a telephone party line. But "You've Got Mail" doesn't achieve even that modest movie's glamorous froth, mostly because Ryan and Hanks are made to flounder so hopelessly.

As bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly, Ryan gives a bouncily mannered performance, bounding around her shabby-chic apartment in sweat socks and punching at the air like a kitten. Ryan is perfectly cute when she just stands there; the added tics are irritations, as are the platitudes she types so furiously into her computer: "I live a small but valuable life. " It isn't shocking, but it is no less galling, when Joni Mitchell is quoted.

Hanks' Joe Fox doesn't fare much better. Coming off his triumphantly restrained portrayal of the unraveling Army captain in "Saving Private Ryan," Hanks hides his acting chops in a blanket of bland affability. Fox is supposed to be a scorpion-tongued businessman with a heart of gold, but Hanks -- whether because of an uninspired script or his own tenacious pleasantness -- can't pull it off. He's supposed to look cute when Ephron squeezes him into a tiny car and enormous sunglasses, but the ploy is beneath him. As for Joe's online ephemera, it runs to such profundities as, "Did you ever feel you've become the worst version of yourself?" Author, speak for thyself.

"You've Got Mail" is supposed to be Ephron's love letter to her homeplace, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which she presents as a Giulianicized theme park delineated by Starbucks, Zabar's and Riverside Park -- an utterly denatured version of what is still a colorful, textured and lively neighborhood. (The mood isn't helped by an off-putting soundtrack dominated by the ditties of Harry Nilsson). Ablaze in twinkle lights, with but one brown face in sight (Joe's best friend, played by David Chapelle), this rich person's version of the city is actually the perfect backdrop for "You've Got Mail," the story and characters of which exist in a world too unrealistic to be compelling and too unimaginative to be truly fanciful.

It's ironic that Ephron is presenting the book-plexes as the bad guys in "You've Got Mail." Because in movie terms, her movie is precisely the sort of homogenized, sanitized and pulse-less Hollywood star vehicle that has become the Barnes & Noble of the film world, the middle-brow bigfoot that continually pushes smaller, better films off the screens.

In fact, the two best things about "You've Got Mail," supporting players Parker Posey and Steve Zahn, came up by way of the very indies that plex-product voraciously consumes. Tart and alluring, Posey has the cheekbones and the timing to be the kind of leading lady that made the romances of the 1930s and 1940s -- including "The Shop Around the Corner" -- so smashing. You can see her at her madcap best in a little movie called "The Daytrippers," an acute, observant romantic comedy by Gret Mottola that played in theaters for about a minute before it went to video.

Skip "You've Got Mail" and rent "The Shop Around the Corner" instead. Better yet, rent "The Daytrippers" as well, and make the acquaintance of Lubitsch and his rightful heirs.

'You've Got Mail'

Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear

Directed by Nora Ephron

Rated PG (some language)

Running time 120 minutes

Released by Warner Brothers

Sun score *

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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