Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Film Review: You’ve Got Mail [1998]

EDIT (2013): WARNING - I wrote these reviews aaaaages ago and possibly don't even agree with them any more.  I have since discovered that one sentence reviews are a lot more fun.  Please see One Sentence Film Reviews tab.

The romantic comedy.  A genre that ignores that practically every story ever told involves at least a little romance and comedy, so how can that be all there is to your story?  A genre that is so flat that nine times out of ten the ending is plastered on the poster, possibly going for ‘it’s not how the story ends, but how it gets there that is important’, but inevitably forgetting to write that part of the story.  That confuses not getting on with someone with sexual chemistry and follows a rigid template of fill in the blanks (name, career, setting) and never deviates from film to film, just to insult the intelligence of the audience who are familiar with both romance and comedy on a day-to-day basis, so really can’t be fobbed off that easily.

Is it possible to actually construct something watchable from this doom of a genre?

Well, there’s You’ve Got Mail. 

It’s a remake of The Shop Around The Corner.  Just this fact seems to get reviewers’ backs up.  And sure, there is a similar theme of enemies who unwittingly fall in love through the written word and one whole café scene is direct homage, but other than that?  The situations and set-up are completely different and the romance is far more central to the plot.  It’s a romantic comedy.  In fifty-eight years, a similar idea is bound to crop up.  These days they can’t go fifty-eight seconds without dragging out the same tired ideas.  You’ve Got Mail is allowed a mildly similar theme without being ripped apart by ravenous I ♥ The Shop Around The Corner critics. (NB I am a huge fan of The Shop Around The Corner)

So what’s so good about You’ve Got Mail?  Let me explain.

The rom-com: The biggest cliché fest this side of the action flick.  You could watch one with your eyes shut and still be able to tell exactly what is going to happen in the next scene.

You’ve Got Mail: takes these romance and feel-good film clichés, and handles them refreshingly, intelligently and believably.

The rom-com: The scripts are dull and talky yet manage to reveal little depth as they swerve from turning point to cliché at a reliability you could set your watch by, while attempting some kind of quirky style and analysis of the human condition and coming off as boring or irritating.  Of course, they also have to be funny (that’d be that com part) and either miss, falling flat into slightly uncomfortable straight drama, or are filled with lame squirmy one-liners and sniping.  Handling of all emotions is clumsy and unconvincing; bizarre, considering everyone involved in making it has those emotions.  You’d think they knew what they were for.

You’ve Got Mail: With a witty and bouncy script and style, this whisks the audience along in a pleasingly fun feeling and is full of nice details, particularly how in love the meaningless becomes meaningful.  Meanwhile, humour and wistfulness is balanced against heartbreaking despair in a skilled and enthralling storm on the emotions while retaining a whimsical magic. 

The rom-com: characters are cardboard cut-outs, usually with some ‘kooky’ personality trait to differentiate them from the million other rom-com characters while anyone unlucky enough not to be the lead is dropped in for a rude comment or plot parallel that gives the lead someone to look down on and is swept insultingly aside when they have fulfilled this purpose. 

You’ve Got Mail: characters are heavily developed albeit with an air of the fairy tale, lending believability that the leads live full lives interacting with friends and family off screen.

The rom-com: Lovers at the start of the film are ruthlessly used and dumped for no reason (suddenly they’re too uptight; then why were you dating them for five years?), simply to make the minutes before the film climaxes with the image on the poster phonily harder to trudge to. 

You’ve Got Mail: Kathleen and boyfriend Frank come to a natural end, unaffected by the central romance of the film.  Both this relationship and that between Joe and girlfriend Patricia are subtly set up to show why the couples are together, but that there is no possibility of the long term.

The rom-com: The leads start as bickering enemies, then switch abruptly to duvet-wrestling lovers with little explanation. 

You’ve Got Mail: actually broaches the friendship stage that would surely have to bridge the gap for the relationship to have any vestige of longevity. 

The rom-com: is never deep.  There is however, the tediously inevitable falling out scene where the somehow wronged lead storms off, they both wander around to sad music and then run into each other’s arms having magically got over whatever it was for no reason.

You’ve Got Mail: Joe suffers for the pain he causes the woman he loves.  He is a fascinating romantic lead.  A callous businessman, with depth and humour as a person.  His horror at discovering his anonymous lover is his enemy, the inner turmoil bubbling beneath his eyes for what he has done and his desperation to befriend her and be forgiven when he knows it is too late are all superbly acted by Tom Hanks. 

The rom-com: The ending is obvious and unsatisfactory, obliterating personalities and reality for the freeze-frame kiss.

You’ve Got Mail: Ah.  And here the film slips up, sabotaging You’ve Got Mail’s chances of being a classic.  SPOILER ALERT.  Towards the end, the film switches almost entirely to Joe’s perspective, as he tries to become Kathleen’s friend.  This throws off the delicate balance that has been the structure so far.  The last scene, in which Kathleen waits to meet her anonymous lover and is presented with Joe, doesn’t work.  The ‘surprise!’ tactic is tasteless, as is confirmed by Kathleen bursting into tears.  Not the happy ending desired.  Then instead of these two witty, intelligent, deep people, so recently bitter enemies but now close friends, discussing the coincidence, irony and subterfuge of this situation, they just kiss.  A kiss?  That’s it?  This isn’t a Disney cartoon.  An intelligent audience needs more than that.  It’s an awful lot of build up for such an abrupt ending.  Can anyone say unsatisfied?

So is it possible to construct something watchable from this doom of a genre?

Watchable?  Yes.  But something that overcomes the stigma of its genre and works as a film in its own right?  If so, this isn’t it. 

You’ve Got Mail is certainly one of the best rom-coms, but the ending brutally stops it being a perfect film.  Still, if one must watch a rom-com, make it this one.


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