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'Mail': Pushing Your Buttons

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 1998

  Movie Critic

You've Got Mail
'Net gain: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan woo each other through e-mail in "You've Got Mail." (Warner Bros.)

Nora Ephron
Tom Hanks;
Meg Ryan;
Hallee Hirsh;
Dabney Coleman;
David Chappelle;
Greg Kinnear;
Michael Palin;
Parker Posey;
Jean Stapleton;
Steve Zahn
Running Time:
1 hour, 56 minutes
Contains a smattering of profanity
As I staggered zombie-like out of a screening of "You've Got Mail," an insistent voice kept sounding in my head: Must . . . enroll . . . in America Online . . . now . . . I also had a strange craving for a tall, non-fat, decaf mochaccino.

Maybe it's not so strange after all. The protagonists of Nora Ephron's new romantic comedy spend so much time either logged on to their e-mail accounts or ordering designer coffee that the film feels like an extended commercial for AOL and Starbucks. In between, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan somehow manage to fall in love, despite circumstantial barriers that threaten to prevent them from realizing that they were made for each other.

If the cast, director and plot sound familiar, they ought to. It's "Sleepless in Seattle" all over again. Except that here, instead of a radio call-in show, it's e-mail that brings the lovers together, and instead of geographic undesirability, it's the fact that they're business rivals that keeps them apart. In 1993, if memory serves, that winning formula went over like gangbusters, and I see no reason why "Mail" shouldn't repeat the phenomenal success of "Seattle."

And yet . . . and yet . . .

For some reason, this film made me feel like a Christmas goose being fattened for slaughter. Its force-fed diet of whimsy cloyed long before the eagerly anticipated romantic payoff arrived to put me out of my misery.

Okay, so misery is too strong a word. But I can only take so much adorable nose-scrunching by the adorable Ryan as she pads around her adorable apartment in her adorable little pj's. As Kathleen Kelly, Ryan plays the proprietor of a quaint children's bookstore called the Shop Around the Corner. She dreams of butterflies on the subway and dresses up in princess headgear to read aloud to her wee customers. Her cute AOL address is Shopgirl.

As Joe Fox, Tom Hanks plays the dapper scion of a family that runs a chain of book superstores that threaten to put Kathleen's independent shop out of business. He has a fluffy golden retriever named Brinkley and gets along great with kids. His no-nonsense online tag is NY152.

For several months now, Shopgirl and NY152 have been conducting a computer affair, sneaking virtual visits with each other behind the backs of their respective significant others (Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey). Since they have agreed not to exchange any personal information, the keyboard correspondents have no idea that in reality each cannot stand the other.

Well, that's not entirely true. They initially hit it off when Joe accidentally meets Kathleen over the cash register of her store; the animus doesn't set in until she finds out he is a corporate greed-head. (He isn't really, but she can't see past their adversarial entrepreneurial relationship.)

When will these two crazy kids come to their senses and realize their love was meant to be? Professional standards prevent me from giving away the ending, but I can tell you that about half-way through Joe figures out that Kathleen and Shopgirl are one and the same, so a substantial portion of the film's suspense dissipates early on.

Just as there was nothing terribly wrong with "Seattle," there's nothing seriously amiss here, especially if you can convince yourself that lurking in the next AOL chat room might be a Tom Hanks or a Meg Ryan and not some drooling 300-pound loser with bad skin.

The script, written by the director and her sister Delia, is clever enough, but the Ephron sisters are at their best when they are at their nastiest. Posey's tart, brittle character is a joy to watch and Kathleen is most palatable when she is dissing Joe and not batting her big Bambi-eyes at him. Steve ("Out of Sight") Zahn is funny as Kathleen's slightly spaced-out employee, and Jane ("Happiness") Adams makes an amusing cameo appearance as a flirtatious TV interviewer.

Nevertheless, there's nothing really new or original here, except that Ephron's five-year-old movie has been updated to incorporate our modern obsession with electronic communication over good, old-fashioned conversation in a singles bar.

E-mail may give "Mail" its oh-so-trendy zip, but it is also its chief downfall. After all, how exciting is it to stand over someone's shoulder and watch him type?

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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