After seeing it had been added to Netflix, I re-watched You’ve Got Mail on a grey Monday afternoon, not expecting to find it particularly profound on my second viewing. I sat and got sucked into the allure of living in New York in the 90s, and I couldn’t help but pick up on details which seemed to be fortuitously relevant to the position the world is in over 20 years after the film’s release. A small business in trouble and a relationship sustained online, it seemed familiar. I suspect the 1998 audience could not have predicted that online conversation would be relied upon as one of the few means of communication during a pandemic, but here we are.
You’ve Got Mail follows independent book store owner Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a corporate book store owner. The two are engaged in an anonymous online relationship consisting of eloquently formulated, back and forth emails, in which they discuss their day to day, and wider observations they make about life and their experience of it. They do this whilst leaving out details regarding their identity, importantly their names and their professions. Simultaneously, Kathleen and Joe meet in another setting, unaware that they are in fact already acquainted. It transpires that their businesses are in conflict, as Joe’s ‘Fox Books’ threatens the survival of ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, owned by Kathleen. These separate relationships, involving the same two individuals, resolve into a decisive ending, pleasing for a viewer who is hungry for a textbook rom-com finale. The screenplay is expertly crafted by Nora and Delia Ephron, who inject humour by both subtle and occasionally slapstick means, and ensure that every word is beautifully reflective of real life.
The home shopping channel playing in the background on the TV, the significance of a bunch of flowers; Kathleen’s short spell bedbound with a cold is remarkably similar to a day in lockdown for many. However, these are not the only parallels. You’ve Got Mail marks a time when online dating, and online communication in general was becoming a new normal. In part, this is painted positively in the film, and the virtual relationship between Kathleen and Joe demonstrates how facelessness often encourages vulnerability. Now, in a time when online communication is crucial to maintain human connection outside your household, You’ve Got Mail reminds us of what this can look like. It highlights the privilege of having time to think up the perfect response, something which rarely happens in real life conversation. Kathleen relishes the rare moment when it does, as she executes a quick-witted insult towards Joe: “I just had a breakthrough…I knew exactly what I wanted to say and I said it!”. Skilfully, the film captures the anticipation of waiting for an email, the impatience not dissimilar to that of waiting for a letter, something which instant messaging has almost driven into extinction. Despite praising the virtual world, You’ve Got Mail teaches that online relationships are meaningless when they’re not coupled with reality. Kathleen and Joe are a perfect fit, but this is due to their real life, human interactions just as much as their cyber, orchestrated one. “I wanted it to be you”, Kathleen says when she finds out that Joe is the face behind the words.
One of the wonderful things about this film is how it celebrates coincidence, the twists which shape our relationships, our careers, our futures. You’ve Got Mail shows two lives intertwine, each from a different background, with a different take on the industry they’re in, brought together in an unlikely union by meaningful conversation and a series of coincidences. The story of Kathleen and Joe made me think about the restricted lifestyle we are now living for our own safety, and how it removes these serendipitous moments from our every day. For those of us who are not key workers, our days have become predictable and limited. The possibility of bumping into your virtual pen friend in a café on a corner in New York has been extinguished. You’ve Got Mail is a textbook love story, but it also portrays the details of life in all its richness. Seeing this on screen made me ache for the unexpected enjoyment of bumping into someone you’re pleased to see, conversation with a stranger at the bus stop, and days unfolding, sometimes with slight, unexpected detours, because, like Kathleen says, our lives are “small” but they are “valuable.”
I’m glad that technology is as advanced as it is, especially now. The outdated opening titles in You’ve Got Mail remind me of the developed world that we live in, and how this has made living in lockdown so much easier. But I don’t think that any form of online communication can replace the conversations I have had in parked cars, youth hostels or sat on a bench by the sea. These are the things that You’ve Got Mail reminded me of, and these are the things it made me miss.
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