You've Got Mail is a 2 hour advertisement for AOL disguised as a 1998 romantic comedy featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, their third and final screen pairing (after Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle). It was directed by Nora Ephron. Sisters Nora and Delia Ephron co-wrote the script, loosely based on Miklós Lászlo's theatrical play Parfumerie (which had previously been adapted into the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and the 1963 musical She Loves Me, respectively).
Joe Fox (Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) are both active in the New York bookstore scene, but at very different levels. Joe is a high-ranking executive for "Fox Books", an ever-expanding chain of bookstores. Kathleen runs "The Shop Around The Corner", a small independent bookstore, inherited from her mother. As she keeps losing customers to Fox Books and is in danger of going bankrupt, Kelly starts a public campaign against the chain. Naturally Joe and Kathleen's relationship is adversarial.
Meanwhile the two are involved in rather unsatisfying romantic relationships and feel lonely. They search for pen pals over the Internet. Fox uses the screen name "NY152"; Kelly goes by "Shopgirl". They soon become friends and begin courting over the Internet, each unaware that their new love interest and business rival are the same person.
The film was a box office hit; its total lifetime gross estimated to $250,821,495. With about $116 million earned in the United States alone, it was the 14th most financially successful film of its year. While the plot was hardly original, the film gathered rather positive reviews due to the chemistry between its leads, its often witty dialogues, quirky supporting cast and somewhat realistic take on the plight of small businesses going under.
This film provides examples of:
- Acquainted in Real Life: Joe and Kathleen are bitter rivals in the real world, while unknowingly courting one another online. When Joe discovers this he begins trying to court her offline as well.
- Alliterative Name: Kathleen Kelly.
- Ambiguously Bi: Gillian eventually runs off with the nanny, but makes advances to Joe several times beforehand.
- Are Those Cute Kids Yours?: Kathleen has this reaction when introduced to Matt and Annabelle until Joe explains that Matt is his baby half-brother and Annabelle is his aunt.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Although, unusually, the attraction predates the belligerence.
- Big Applesauce: The entire story takes place in the city.
- Bittersweet Ending: Sadly, Kathleen's bookstore folds. But after a period of building a bridge between himself and Kathleen, Joe is able to bury the hatchet with her. There are mentions that she has a number of career prospects, which means she's likely to land on her feet, and she and Joe get together in the end.
- Both Sides Have a Point: Inverted, it's more like "Both sides are wrong". Joe is simply a entrepreneur and isn't doing anything illegal, but his pride in taking out competing book stores left and right is unethical. And while Kathleen has good intentions trying to save her mother's bookstore, she's prejudiced thinking Fox Books is just a greedy, impersonal corporation when in reality it's a decent book store that brings people together.
- Brutal Honesty: After Kathleen's book store folds, Patricia casually points out it was Joe's fault it happened and even points out that the only person who would be just as cut-throat as he was would be herself.
- ...But He Sounds Handsome: Inverted. When Joe and Kathleen become friends in real life, she tells him about her online pen pal, and Joe is quick to speculate that he's probably unattractive, unpleasant in real life, and married.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: What Kathleen takes Joe to be. He turns out to be a nice person; although he does sometimes have an arrogant streak about his business (especially the first time he converses with Kathleen after she finds out he's of Fox Books), he is also aware enough to admit that it's something he doesn't like about himself.
- Chick Flick: Unashamedly so.
- City People Eat Sushi: Sushi is mentioned by the yuppie newspaper columnist as what dinner's gonna be. His bookstore owner girlfriend repeats "Sushi!" with a mix of surprise and approval.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Birdie is mostly down-to-earth and grandmotherly, but she has her moments that make her friends wonder whether she's entirely there— such as claiming to have dated Generalissimo Franco.
- Cool Old Guy: Joe's father lives on a boat, makes Manhattans and gives his son free relationship advice.
- Dating Service Disaster: A big part of the plot.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Joe has to convince Kathleen he's not a horrible person offline.
- Dramatically Missing the Point: While Kathleen and Frank are having a little argument over whether Birdie is crazy or not for claiming she personally knew Generalissimo Franco, the conversation steers to a point where Frank claims he could never date a woman who doesn't vote. This prompts Kathleen to tell him something she never told him before: during an election between two important candidates, she didn't vote. Clearly, she's testing his response. And what does he say? "It's okay, I forgive you." Needless to say, she storms out.
- Evil Is Petty: In Kathleen's eyes. While Kathleen and Joe are having a tiff at a dinner party (shortly after Kathleen finds out he is the part of the Fox Books hierarchy), he nonchalantly scoops some caviar off a dessert plate onto his own. Kathleen is offended by that ("That caviar is a GARNISH!"), prompting Joe to look her in the eye and wordlessly put more caviar on his plate.
- Fictional Counterpart: Fox Books is clearly a stand-in for Barnes & Noble, and the way it forces Kathleen's bookshop out of business is based on the real-life 1996 closure of a small Upper West Side bookstore, Shakespeare & Co., following the opening of a B&N branch in the same neighborhood.
- Forgiveness: Towards the end, this is brought up when Joe points out that Kate can't hope to truly move on with her life if she can't forgive either him for her mother's bookstore going out of business or her on-line penpal for not showing up.
- Gag Echo: When Kathleen comes back to the bookstore after her failed meet, Christina, then George, then Birdie's first response to the news when they show up minutes apart is "He stood you up?"
- Genre Throwback: A wholly uncynical and innocent movie about romance. A throwback to Hollywood's Golden Age of fluffy romance films, featuring no villains, all nice people, witty dialogue and a lot of supporting roles, and the movie's conclusion is never in doubt. (Understandably, since Parfumerie — the play this movie is based on — was released in 1937.)
- Heel Realization: Joe has one after he's trapped in the elevator and spends the rest of the movie striving to make amends for some of the harm he's caused in the hopes Kathleen will forgive him.
- Held Gaze: Joe and Kathleen share one at the end that looks like it's going to become an Almost Kiss outside her house. At the end, another Held Gaze leads into The Big Damn Kiss.
- Hypocrite: Kathleen Kelly expects other people to patronize her small business, but goes to Starbucks for coffee early in the movie.
- Frank decries the rise of VCRs on a television interview, which he then tapes.
- Insufferable Genius: Frank Navasky has traces of this; he writes on fairly arcane political topics but is rather full of himself. May double as Small Name, Big Ego.
- Irony: When Joe stands Kathleen up for their first meeting, he considers lying that he was trapped in an elevator -only for it to happen for real later in the movie.
- It's All About Me: Patricia partly falls under this category.
- Kick the Dog: Deconstructed. Joe hits Kathleen with some pretty nasty sarcasm when she confronts him. Shortly afterward, he recognizes that spontaneous insults come with inevitable regret.
- Kathleen, by contrast, thinks of herself as too meek, and wishes she could come up with nasty comments on the spot. Later, is able to hit Joe with some particularly mean accusations, and just as he warned, she regrets it afterward.
- The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: After hours of being stuck in an elevator, a group of people start talking about what they'll do when they get out. One person promises to call her mother more, another decides he'll ask his girlfriend to marry him. Patricia promises... she will get laser surgery for her eyes because she's tired of contact lenses. It's Played for Drama, as it makes clear to Joe how self-centered she is.
- Lipstick Lesbian: Gillian and the nanny are gay...and very pretty.
- Long Last Look: After selling off the stock and emptying her shop, Kathleen returns for one last look of the empty rooms and bookshelves. For a moment she sees herself as a child, "twirling" with her mother. Then she picks up the doorbell, locks up and leaves.
- Love Before First Sight: The two fall in love through emails and online chat alone.
- Love Confession: Right before Kathleen goes to meet her online love, Joe admits his feelings for her and asks how she could forgive a guy she's never met for standing her up but not him for "this tiny thing of putting you out of business."
- Loves My Alter Ego: Joe, once he knows he's talking to Kathleen online. She loves him when they trade e-mails but understandably dislikes him in real life.
- Love Letter Lunacy: Well, love email lunacy thanks to the Setting Update.
- Lucky Charms Title: "You've Got Matil"?
- Ludd Was Right: Frank is the Upper West Side version. Technical progress is okay up to a certain point — specifically the invention of the electric typewriter — but what goes beyond that is the work of the devil.
- Must Have Caffeine: Joe Fox explains his business plan: "we're going to sell them cheap books and legal addictive stimulants."
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Before Joe knows her identity, he gives his pen pal the business advice "Go to the mattresses," unaware that he's encouraging her to go to battle against his business. This ramps up the antagonism between them in real life as well.
- Noodle Incident:Birdie: What are you girls talking about?
Birdie: I tried to have cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal.
Kathleen: He couldn't possibly be the Rooftop Killer!
- When Kathleen believes she been stood up, George sees an article about the arrest of the rooftop killer and he and Christina believe that it could be him:
Christina: Remember when you thought Frank might be the Unabomber?
Kathleen: Well, that was different.
- Not So Similar: After Kathleen's bookstore folds, Joe and Patricia have a conversation, where the latter points out that he's about as cutthroat as she is to callously put his competition out of business like that. But while they're stuck in the elevator, Patricia claiming she'll get laser surgery if they get out actually indicates she doesn't share much with Joe. Although the two are business-orientated, Patricia only thinks about herself while Joe is considerate of others and wants a mutual relationship.
- Nothing Personal: Kathleen emphatically rejects the trope after Fox Books ran her store into the ground:Joe: It wasn't personal.
Kathleen: What is that supposed to mean?! I am so sick of that. All it means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal anyway?
Joe: Uh, nothing.
Kathleen: Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.
- Overly Narrow Superlative: It's mentioned a few times that Frank is "the greatest living expert on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg".
- Pair the Spares: Averted. Frank and Patricia get on with their lives, but they do not become a couple, and only Frank is confirmed to be dating someone else after the breakup with Kathleen. There's also not a trace of romance between George and Christina (Kathleen's younger employees). What's more, Joe's grandfather and Kathleen's surrogate mother figure are the same age, but never meet. (See Reality Ensues).
- "Pan Up to the Sky" Ending: The movie pans up to a bright clear sky at the end.
- Pet the Dog: Both a figurative and literal example: Joe Fox has a dog and he meets Kathleen while walking it.
- Posthumous Character: Kathleen's mother, the original owner of the Shop Around the Corner who touched a lot of people's lives, including (fleetingly) that of Joe's grandfather. She was ... enchanting.
- Precision F-Strike: Joe goes on a tirade about how the news edited his interview rather unfavorably compared to Kathleen and shouts "Shit!" in the fitness club. Immediately following an assertion that "I was eloquent!"
- Predatory Business: Subverted twice:
Roger Ebert: The movie is sophisticated enough not to make the mega-store into the villain. Say what you will, those giant stores are fun to spend time in.
- Even if Fox Books undercuts the prices of family bookstores like The Shop Around The Corner, it still serves the community for the better — when Kathleen is walking around the store, she sees groups of adults and children alike scattered around reading books and having fun. Even if the one employee didn't know about the "Shoe" books, there's no indication that they are selling shoddy material or using dirty business practices. As Joe Fox said, "I sell cheap books. Sue me."
- Also by Kathleen waging war on a giant chain that she blames for putting small independent stores out of business but when she wants a coffee she chooses Starbucks.
- Reality Ensues: Just because a man and a woman either knows the lead male or lead female of a comedy doesn't automatically mean they are going to somehow meet and/or start dating one another. Frank and Patricia hit it off nicely the instant they meet, but they never date or interact with each other beyond that.
- Kathleen is devastated when she learns that, for all the followers she got, her bookstore still isn't getting as much customers as Fox Books. Sometimes, David doesn't always beat Goliath, and the under dog doesn't always come out on top.
- Quote Mine: Joe's interview rebuttal to Kathleen's protest was a victim of this. He was quoted as saying "I sell cheap books. Sue me." The extended quote actually also mentioned that their bookstore was a place where people are welcome to come in, sit and enjoy the afternoon.
- Secretly Wealthy: After the bookstore closes, Birdie offers to lend Kathleen money, claiming "I'm very rich, I bought Intel at 6". Given Birdies Cloud Cuckoo Lander tendencies, it's not clear whether she's making this up, or whether she's genuinely rich and has just been working in a bookstore for fun.
- The name of Kathleen Kelly's store, "The Shop Around The Corner", is a deliberate reference to the 1940 movie.
- Joe Fox/NY152 constantly refers to The Godfather as the I Ching of manly wisdom and quotes extensively from the film. He inadvertently teaches Kathleen the meaning of the phrase "Go to the mattresses" — go to war with your enemies — which she promptly uses to declare war on Joe's store chain.
- Another, more subtle shout-out is the Kathleen's statement that she loves Pride and Prejudice, which also features the "enemies becoming a couple" plot. It's also the book that she brings to their disastrous "first" meeting.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Joe's reaction to being Quote Mined in a TV interview: "I was eloquent! Shit!"
- Strange Minds Think Alike: After her conversation with Joe in which he suggest to "go to the mattresses" (and explains it's from The Godfather), Kathleen asks Frank to help her, who agrees even though he's only half-listening. When she tries to get his attention by asking if he knows what the phrase means, without missing a beat or looking up from his paper, he states, "From The Godfather."
- Sympathetic Adulterer:
- Joe and Kathleen are essentially carrying on an emotional online affair behind their respective partners' backs. It's played as complex as a) their online relationship isn't explicitly romantic (and completely non-sexual) and b) they're both in unhappy relationships with pretty self-involved partners. Nonetheless, it's also clear that they both feel guilty about it, and take pains to hide their online interactions.
- Kathleen herself reacts with amusement rather than outrage when she sees Frank blatantly flirting with the journalist interviewing him on television. And when she finally breaks it off, Frank is relieved and they both have a laugh over saying "I'm not in love with you."
- Talking in Bed: Averted. A scene in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are using their computers to chat was staged with them sitting on opposite sides of their beds, so that it could be shown in Split Screen as if they were on the same bed. The filmmakers opted to show them in alternating takes.
- Tangled Family Tree: Thanks to his father and grandfather taking up with and having children with younger women, 40-something Joe has an 11-year old half-aunt and a 4 year old half-brother, both of whom are mistaken for his children when he takes them out for the day."She's my grandfather's daughter, he's my father's son. We're an American family."
- Wealthy Yacht Owner: Not "yacht", per se, but Joe and his father are shown to own very nice boats big enough to serve as mini-apartments after they each breakup with their girlfriends.
- Wicked Stepmother: Downplayed. Gillian may playfully pretend to be a wicked stepmother, but she is a relatively nice person. On the other hand, her secretly lusting after Joe makes her the furthest thing from a good step parent.
- What the Hell, Hero?:
- Kathleen does one to herself. When she finally musters the confidence and the ability to zing and insult Joe at the coffee shop, she at first feels enlightened but later expresses regret and guilt about being "cruel" in an email to "NY152".
- Joe simultaneously goes through the same thing after realizing he stepped over the line by needling her while also not revealing himself as her pen-pal. In his e-mailed apology in response, he tells her not to feel too guilty because it was "provoked and maybe even deserved". This starts the turning point in both characters easing up on their hostility towards the other.