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"You've Got Mail!"

by Thomas More

Copyright 1999 by Thomas More. All rights reserved.

By all means, go see this film. It's a cute love story, along the lines of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "As Good as It Gets," in the sense that it's the story of a couple of "meant-for-each-others" trying to overcome their most recent mistakes, all the while suffering from the dysfunctional dating skills of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall," the prototype for these mumbling, stumbling relationships.

What makes "You've Got Mail" unique is the fact that this couple, played by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, meet online. "In a chat-room," she tells her part-time college-student employee (Heather Burns) at the children's bookstore she operates, on Manhattan's West Side. What she doesn't realize for most of the film is that the object of her email romance is, in real life, the guy who's planning to open a huge discount bookstore in the same neighborhood, which is likely to force her right out of business.

Don't get your hopes up if you're a serious student of online relationships. This film is not an in-depth study of online romance at all. What it is, though, is an introduction to email romance for the movie-going audience, the majority of whom are not yet online. Although about half a billion email messages speed through the Internet each day, only about 45 percent of the 98 million households in the United States had access to the World Wide Web in January 1998. However, almost everyone has heard about email and online romance, and they're curious enough to have put this film in first place at the box office just after its release, beating out "The Prince of Egypt" and "A Bug's Life," which finished in second and third place, in that order.

A real documentary on this subject, la "20/20" would be scary, but this bit of fluff is just right for the purpose. The characters are fairly easy to relate to, although Hanks plays a millionaire mega-discount bookstore mogul who moves onto his yacht when he splits with his most recent mistake, a high-powered professional woman (nicely played by Parker Posey) "who would make coffee nervous," as Hanks' character describes her.

Greg Kinnear plays the character with the most depth, a writer who is the other half of Meg Ryan's current affair that's going nowhere. He's a journalist, an idealist, a pragmatist, and he is the smartest of this misguided lover's quadrangle when he decides to call it quits. If you saw him in "As Good as It Gets," when you see his work in this film you will be impressed with the breadth of his acting ability. He outshines the leading man in this film, in terms of showing the audience a believably sensitive, real person. There's also plenty of talent in the supporting cast. Steve Zahn, David Chappelle and Dabney Coleman also contribute, but their considerable talent is not fully employed in these roles. I think perhaps writer-director Nora Ephron's reach exceeds her grasp when it comes to this caliber of talent. Jean Stapleton is good in a small part that I kept hoping would develop (you remember her as Edith in "All In the Family," if you're old enough). In "You've Got Mail, she plays the long-time bookkeeper in Ms. Ryan's bookstore, and offers a few words of advice to the younger generation, which is: seize love while you're young enough to enjoy it. This theme has been around in literature as diverse as Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress" ("...a grave's a fine and lovely place, but none I think do there embrace."), to Joe Williams crooning "all I want's a little lovin', before you pass away."

Right away in the beginning of this film you see that both Kathleen and Joe (Ryan and Hanks) are getting online to see if they've "got mail" as soon as their current significant others are out of sight. The fascination with getting to know a person via email, without actually meeting face-to-face, is testament to the power of people's imaginations, and it's nicely shown in this film that was written, produced and directed by Nora Ephron, with a lot of help from her sister, Delia Ephron. Actually the screenplay is an adaptation of a 1939 film called "The Shop Around the Corner" by Ernst Lubitsch, which starred Jimmy Stewart, to whom Hanks has been compared. The correspondents in that film were pen pals, in a time before email was even imagined.

There's quite a large "photo album" of still shots from the film at its official Web site (courtesy of Warner Brothers). If you know how to copy the .jpg files from your browser's cache to a temporary directory, you can have the whole cast on your screensaver. If you would like to use Tom Hanks' or Meg Ryan's voices from the soundtrack to create an audio greeting for your online significant other, or if you just want to have fun, you can do that at E! Online's Hot Features, which lets you cut and paste their words to create a unique message. They don't have a Mac-compatible version, unfortunately, and you must have Java enabled in your Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer (version 4.0 or later). And a sound card, of course, to process all those digital bits of love patter.

Here's some interesting trivia that you wouldn't know unless you're an America Online (AOL) subscriber. The title of the film is the same as the recorded message that AOL subscribers hear when they click on their mailboxes. It's been criticized for being grammatically incorrect; in fact, the computer screen displays the more correct "You Have Mail," but the audible announcement says it in the vernacular. Apparently there's no audible announcement to match the "No Mail" response -- just the silence of Meg Ryan's disappointment after she's been stood up by her cyberspace friend.

Incidentally, that "You've Got Mail" message was recorded nine years ago by Elwood Edwards, whose wife was an AOL employee. She suggested that her husband's friendly voice would make a fine greeting. He is also heard by AOL subscribers (and this film's audience) saying "Welcome" and "Goodbye." On AOL, he can also be heard saying "File's Done," but that phrase is not heard in the film.

Trivia buffs may also be interested in knowing that Tom Hanks had never been online before this film was made, and he tried it at the urging of Nora Ephron. While promoting the film's release he reported on the CBS show, "This Morning," that his first visit to a chat room was a failure. No one was there! Can you imagine? If you'd been in that chat room at the right time, you'd have been online with Tom Hanks, in person! Well, in cyberspace, anyway. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for me to check my email. I've been hearing from someone who calls herself ""

During the week, Thomas More writes rather technical stuff about business software, but on weekends he likes to loosen up a bit and write about WWWiz stuff.


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