Image credit: Warner Bros.

Review: You’ve Got Mail (1998) **

What if I took this dainty pair of embroidery scissors and trimmed around Tom Hanks’s character to remove him? We would end up with something that feels more like women’s fiction, and something I wouldn’t want to rip up with my teeth like my dog eating socks.

The short summary is: A small businesswoman is trying to make her mother’s bookstore survive the opening of Barnes & Noble*. Not only does she fail and lose the bookstore, but she ends up with the guy responsible for the changing economic circumstances (literally, this guy is bourgeoisie, a boss, a wage-thief, the kind of guy whose whole family goes to the guillotine in the revolution) that spent the last few months actively lying to her gd face in an incredibly personal way.

Thing is, I think the bitter ending is totally right for Meg Ryan as a creator. She’s obviously a Nerd For Story. Her new non-romcom with David Duchovny also doesn’t have an HEA. Ryan knows her career is shaped around the fantasy of love and hope healing, but she wants to know where the boundaries on that exist in reality.

And the beauty of Meg Ryan’s performance is what keeps me coming back to this movie. She *is* overloaded with hope. She *hopes* she will give her mother’s gift to her own daughter, who doesn’t exist yet. She *hopes* people will continue coming to her bookstore because they care about children’s books the way Fox Books* doesn’t. She hopes to remain the center of a community. She hopes to do this the rest of her life.

So this movie takes away all of Meg Ryan’s hopes and says, “What now?” Still, this woman picks herself up and says, “I have lost everything. It is time for something new.” She becomes an editor. The legacy of her mother turns out (subtextually) to be one of resilience.

And that’s not how the story frames it.

Rather, this movie is the story of capitalism bulldozing small business hopes, and it has *nothing* encouraging to say about it.

Meg Ryan’s mom didn’t want to pass an empire of capital onto her daughter; she wanted to pass hope on. And the Fox family, who HAS built an empire of capital, stealing wages, destroying businesses and culture, gets everything they could possibly want. Including the son of the family getting the enchanting Meg Ryan.

You can talk about how Joe Fox isn’t entirely happy with this situation. We see his discontent. To that, I would like to say, so fn what? He doesn’t lose anything. The rewards of plot and economy are showered on him no matter how badly he behaves so persistently. He even continues lying to and manipulating our heroine after her business has fallen. We’re supposed to think this is when they *really* fall in love.

Nora Ephron, are you okay? Do you need a lesbian strike team to remove you from your life?


FWIW, if I wanted this to work as a romcom, I’d tweak the script so that Meg Ryan’s character feels burdened by her mom’s legacy and *wants* something new, so that it’s an unexpected gift when capitalism-wearing-Tom-Hanks-face bulldozes her life. It wouldn’t be a massive change to take this ending from feeling like spit in her eye to being like “Ok, I guess she’s happier anyway.”

Image credit: Warner Bros.


  • Rory Hume

    i like your hope framing here. honestly, it rescues the story a little bit for me: joe is trapped in cycles of toxicity that we can see both in his dad and grandfather, and that makes fox books a crushing capitalistic machine of inevitability. that machine crushes kathleen, but she’s her mother’s daughter and hope is her legacy at the end of it all, not the store. plus, joe tries to teach her cruelty and malice and when she does a little bit of it, he sees the direct effect of what he’s done and uses it as his catalyst for change.

    but i think we don’t see enough change from joe to make this a slam dunk. we see him break up with his terrible girlfriend and not want his dad’s life, but there’s a difference between shedding the toxicity of your old life and actively reaching for a new, better way. i think wooing kathleen (in a way that still makes my skin crawl, because he knows everything and she doesn’t) at the end is supposed to serve that purpose, but it falls short for me. we needed a moment like richard gere climbing the fire escape in pretty woman…which was also supported by him looking at his career and realizing how toxic and damaging it was, and making an active change for something else. the ending here is a shrug like, whoops, you both still live in capitalism, nothing to do about that. what a pessimistic ending when hope is your throughline.

    from the “meg ryan: nerd for story” angle, i can see the appeal in you’ve got mail if you get deeply immersed in kathleen’s pov. the happy ending is entirely that kathleen looks in the face of bitterness and defeat and chooses hope anyway. from that perspective, you almost need joe to still suck because kathleen makes lemonade out of lemons regardless. i’m reluctant to call it a step up from her previous boyfriend (i LOVED their amicable breakup), but she is getting something from joe that she didn’t from frank: not fitting well on paper, but a real connection from someone who deliberately worked to see her from all angles once he had greater context about that connection. joe does the emotional heavy lifting in this movie! he doesn’t go nearly far enough, but he’s the one doing the legwork!

    maybe my dissatisfaction with this movie is partially rooted in generation gap. not to be all “lol boomers”, but past generations were working off the idea that imperfect romantic together is better than fulfilled community sans romance. there’s been a modern push away from that mindset. still, if you think about things from that angle, a guy who realizes what he’s doing is wrong AND works to see a woman in whom he’s interested romantically is kind of a fantasy ideal. not MY fantasy, but definitely someone’s fantasy.

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