Remember a time before the internet ruled our lives? When being online was new and exciting, and we didn’t have to scroll past endless tweets about politics or swipe left on a bunch of guys holding up fish? If you’re feeling nostalgic, all you have to do is watch You’ve Got Mail, the romantic comedy that turns 20 this year. From the opening credits – a 3D model of New York City that gradually turns to real life against a backdrop of jaunty music – to the main characters’ giant laptops and the tell-tale sounds of a modem signing on, You’ve Got Mail is packed full of 1998 technology. And although those details are now dated, the movie somehow feels as fresh and charming as it did in the 90s — and, with the hindsight of 20 years of upheaval in the publishing and online dating industries, it turns out that You’ve Got Mail anticipated quite a lot about how we communicate today.
You’ve Got Mail is one of the holy trinity of Meg Ryan/Nora Ephron romantic comedies of the 80s and 90s. Written, directed, and produced by Ephron, the movie stars Ryan as children’s bookstore owner, Kathleen Kelly, and Tom Hanks as business mogul, Joe Fox, whose family owns a big-box bookstore chain similar to Barnes and Noble. Having met in an online chat room, the two are devoted but anonymous pen pals. When Joe opens a new store, Fox Books, just around the corner from Kathleen’s store (called, appropriately, The Shop Around the Corner), the two battle for the Upper West Side’s book buyers, even as they continue to share their secrets online.
You’ve Got Mail has always been my favourite of Ephron’s romantic comedies, probably because I am a bookish woman named Kathleen (who also has a last name beginning with a K!), and I worked as a bookseller for several years before becoming a children’s book editor. A few years ago, I even met my now-boyfriend on Twitter, sort of by accident – so yes, You’ve Got Mail feels weirdly like my own personal vision board.
But it isn’t just me. You’ve Got Mail has a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, plenty of other fans and defenders, and many virtues that make it a charming rewatch. The supporting cast is uniformly great (Steve Zahn! Dave Chappelle! A golden retriever!), especially Parker Posey and Greg Kinnear as the not-quite-right partners that Joe and Kathleen ditch in favor of each other. The film also has a superb script by Ephron and her sister, Delia, that crackles with wit and surprising poignancy. On her real life, Kathleen remarks, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” There isn’t a devoted reader alive who doesn’t recognize the truth in that.
The set, too, is a dream version of New York’s Upper West Side. Kathleen’s bookstore and apartment are chock full of cozy details like twinkle lights, pillow-stuffed sofas, and overflowing bookshelves. This aesthetic fits right into today’s knitted blanket-and-teacup-laden world of #bookstagram. In fact, You’ve Got Mail has a lot to say about bookstores that still applies today. In Ephron’s world, an independent bookstore is a community gathering place. Kathleen and her booksellers know every customer by name. They know every book by name, too – when Kathleen visits Joe’s store, she overhears a customer asking a clueless salesperson for help and knows immediately what book she’s seeking. Having worked at two independent stores, I’ve never met anyone more knowledgeable about books than my fellow booksellers. Working at a small store that can’t afford to match the prices of its big-box competitors or buy books in bulk at a discounted rate, your only advantage is your knowledge and how you use it to build connections with your customers.
In the world of You’ve Got Mail, bookselling is really a form of communication. Sharing books you’ve loved, listening to customers describe what they’re looking for – it’s all a form of shorthand strengthened by the community of the independent bookstore. Joe calls Fox Books a place where people can come and read for hours, “a goddamn piazza,” but it’s clear that Fox’s business model has little to do with connecting with customers. Talking to his father and grandfather about their customers, Joe has to remind them, “Readers… they’re called readers.” At Fox Books, you’re anonymous; you might not talk to anyone while you browse. But the staff at The Shop Around the Corner know your name and your taste. You’ll be forced to make a connection whether you want to or not – which is exactly what happens to Joe when he visits the store on a whim and meets Kathleen, in person, for the first time.
You’ve Got Mail’s focus on the act of connection, and how our real-life encounters can be bolstered and strengthened by our online interactions is, to me, what makes it feel relevant today. We make online connections all the time now without even thinking about it: every new follower, every new like. How many people from high school have you stayed in touch with who might have disappeared from your life without Facebook? How many strangers do you regularly reply to or retweet on Twitter? At the beginning of the movie, we see a montage of Kathleen and Joe going about their regular morning routines. They live in the same neighbourhood, walk down the same streets, get coffee at the same Starbucks, and head to workplaces just around the corner from one another. And yet it takes the internet to bring them together in a romantic relationship.
This central “pen pals-to-lovers” plot is not new to the digital age. Ephron based You’ve Got Mail on the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film, The Shop Around the Corner, which stars Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as squabbling department store coworkers and unwitting pen pals. That film was based on the 1937 play, Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo. Whether it’s letters, emails, or DMs (how I first contacted my boyfriend), people will use the communication technology available to them to find love. With its lovingly detailed portrayal of the simple act of logging on and writing an email, and how that small act of communication can be a catalyst for a real-life relationship, You’ve Got Mail anticipates and celebrates the digital-heavy lives we live now.
My boyfriend and I “met” and chatted for the first time via a dating app, and we even lived briefly in the same neighbourhood, but it wasn’t until a chance interaction on Twitter years later that we actually went on a date. Without that coincidental interaction – a tweet of his being retweeted onto my feed, prompting me to recognize and eventually DM him – we probably wouldn’t have met at all. Really, being “pen pals” is the backbone of online dating, a form of communication in which having a cheesy opening line or using the wrong there/their/they’re can make or break you. In this, modern online daters aren’t so different from Joe and Kathleen, or the characters who came before them, writing to each other as a way of feeling out a potential partner.
Just as I read a bunch of my boyfriend’s tweets before messaging him, trying to gauge what kind of person he was and (let’s be real) how funny he was, Joe and Kathleen use email communication as a way of getting to know each other without taking any risks. Finally, once that initial online connection is built and strengthened under cover of anonymity, it needs to be taken offline, with real names and addresses, to thrive.
Their eventual happy ending does rely on some manipulation from Joe, who is not, it must be said, a perfect romantic hero. Early on, he finds out that his business rival, Kathleen, is also the online mystery woman. After he destroys her business, he orchestrates a number of offline encounters, slowly winning her over as himself even as he continues to write swoon-worthy emails as someone else. His shady behavior would undercut the happy ending if not for the film’s use of the emails to endear both characters to us. Much like how Jane Austen uses letters to have her misunderstood heroes speak for themselves – think of Darcy writing to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice – Ephron allows us to enter Joe’s mind via email.
The email scenes cut between Joe and Kathleen, showing them responding to each other in real time. The film emphasizes the process of writing each email. Joe says what he wants to write as the camera focuses on his face; then, as he starts typing and the camera cuts to the computer screen, showing us the text, his voiceover takes over. So, the viewer experiences the content of each email three times, underscoring the importance to Joe and Kathleen of such mundane observations as “Don’t you love New York in the fall?” as well as the more noteworthy moments of connection, like Joe’s apology for standing her up. Connections are built in both small and significant moments.
In an era of overly full inboxes and constant notifications, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary it is to be able to connect instantly with people all over the world – or sometimes, people just down the street whom you might never meet without an algorithm throwing you together. For me, the nostalgia comes from how excited Joe and Kathleen are just to hear from each other. Can the internet ever be that way again?
It seems unlikely, but independent bookstores have returned to us. In 1998, independent stores around the world were slowly being strangled by big-box stores, such as Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waterstones, and Indigo. In 2018, the rise of Amazon – another digital revolutionary – has led to the almost-demise of the big-box bookstore. I’m not arguing that Amazon is a force for good (it’s absolutely not), but the unintended side effect of big chains closing is that they make space for indie stores to reopen. If someone were to make a sequel to You’ve Got Mail, Joe would be filing for bankruptcy and Kathleen, now a successful children’s author, would be opening a new indie, like authors Ann Patchett and Emma Straub have done. Small-format bookstores are doing so well these days that even Amazon has opened its own. Another argument in favor of You’ve Got Mail’s enduring relevance: Kathleen and the other characters protesting that independent bookstores deserve a central place in the community have been proven right.
It remains to be seen whether independent bookstores will continue to thrive. On the other hand, there’s clearly no getting rid of the internet. Instead of DMing each other, eventually we’ll be sending messages directly to chips in each other’s brains, or something equally frightening. Today’s online interactions aren’t as cheery and sweet as Joe and Kathleen’s. They’re not dealing with Twitter Nazis or spam from Russian bots. But let’s remember the good parts of being online. Don’t be a Frank, Kathleen’s technophobe boyfriend who stands in opposition to the kind of communication that You’ve Got Mail wants to celebrate. The first voice we hear in the film is his, scolding her: “You think this machine’s your friend, but it’s not.” She’s logging on to her laptop, he’s heading out the door to his newspaper job, where he writes columns about topics “relevant for today, like the Luddite movement in 19th-century England.” (Kinnear’s mild-mannered obliviousness in this role is kind of adorable, even in this era of mansplaining.) His newspaper column is a monologue, unlike emailing or instant messaging or even conversation.
And when it comes to the computer, what Frank misses is the fact that Kathleen never claimed the machine itself was her friend. It’s simply a convenient way of communicating with one, and in doing so, building a life-changing connection. There are many reasons to love You’ve Got Mail – it’s funny, it’s sweet, it features singing hot dogs – but its portrayal of how online communication bleeds into, and even builds and improves, our real-life relationships is what still resonates today.