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Film / You've Got Mail

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You've Got Mail (stylized as You've Got M@il) is a 1998 romantic comedy featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their third and final screen pairing (after Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle). It was directed by Nora Ephron, who co-wrote the screenplay with her sister Delia. It's loosely based on Miklós Lászlo's theatrical play Parfumerie (which had previously been adapted into the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, the 1949 musical film In the Good Old Summertime, and the 1963 stage musical She Loves Me).

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.

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.
  • Actor Allusion: Tom Hanks once again playing a guy named Joe opposite Meg Ryan.
  • Adaptational Location Change: It is set in modern-day New York City. The play it is adapted from, Parfumerie, was set in 1930's Budapest.
  • Adaptation Title Change: You've Got Mail is adapted from the play Parfumerie.
  • Alliterative Name: Kathleen Kelly.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: In-universe; in a realistic touch, Joe quotes The Godfather off-hand to Kathleen, but misquotes it as "I didn't know who you were with." It's actually, "Why didn't you tell me you worked for Corleone, Tom."
  • 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 an 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, and in fact goes on to hire one of Kathleen's co-workers in order to make their children's department more knowledgeable.
  • 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.
  • Caretaking is Feminine: Joe Fox grew up with a string of nannies, all implied to be female. His father married a couple of them before divorcing them. His stepmother also brings Nanny Maureen along to assist Joe in case he "can't handle" watching his 4-year-old brother and 8-year-old aunt for the day, but Joe insists she take the day off, subverting the trope — in fact, it's Joe watching the kids that initially attracts Kathleen to him offline.
  • 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.
  • Double Standard: At one point, Joe mentions the unfairness in who Kathleen forgives or doesn't forgive. How can she forgive a complete stranger she met online who stood her up, but not somebody she's met in person for running her business into the ground? Not to mention both of Joe's alter egos made an effort to apologize for their respective wrongs.
  • Dramatic Irony: Basically part of the movie's premises. Kathleen and Joe are two business competitors who share a bitter rivalry, torn by the prospect of one putting the other out of business. What they don't know is, they already met as anonymous pen pals online. The irony is, as opposed to real life, Kathleen and Joe share a deep affection for their online personas, and have developed a functional relationship that borders on romantic.
    • When Kathleen sadly suspects Fox Books will put her shop out of business, she turns to her online pen-pal (unknowingly turning to the very man who's threatening her business). In turn, Joe adds to the dramatic irony by offering his own competitor metaphorical teeth to bite back with (in the form of "taking it to the mattresses").
    • Later, when Joe has learned Kathleen's identity, he's tempted to ditch her without coming to the outing they arranged, but instead decides to stick around to provoke her. Throughout the conversation, he drops tiny hints that he's her mysterious online friend. Not catching his drift, Kathleen continually defends the honor of the man she loves, unaware he's sitting right across from her. Though it quickly turns poignant when she insults Joe with an especially scathing retort, not knowing she's hurt the one person she would never say such things to.
  • 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 take politics seriously. This prompts Kathleen to tell him something she never told him before: during a mayoral election between two 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.
    • This also happens between Joe and Patricia. While they are stuck in the elevator with other people, some of them say how they will do something meaningful with their loved ones if they ever escape, whether it's phoning their mother or proposing to a loved one. Patricia's wish? She wants laser eye surgery so she won't have to wear contacts anymore. Joe is quietly dismayed to see first-hand how astonishingly shallow Patricia is.
  • 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 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 him for her mother's bookstore going out of business.
  • 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.)
  • Good Capitalism, Evil Capitalism: He's an executive for a large corporate bookstore, and she's the owner of an independent community bookstore. The conflict impedes the romance, at least for a while.
  • 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.
  • Is That Cute Kid Yours?: Kathleen has this reaction when introduced to Matt and Annabelle until Joe explains that Matt is his 4-year-old half-brother and Annabelle is his 11-year-old aunt.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Echo: When Kathleen asks Joe's online persona how to deal with her online competitor, one of his advice is to remember that no matter what mean under-handed things she has to do to save her shop, she has to remember it's not personal, it's just business. Later, after Kathleen's shop is put out of business (despite her best efforts), Joe tries to apologize and brings up it wasn't personal. As though in response to her pen pal, Kathleen goes into a rant over how she thinks it's a tired and cliched excuse to say it "wasn't personal" when something meaningful is taken from you. From where she stands, it would make her feel better if anything started with "being personal".
  • Must Have Caffeine: Joe Fox explains his business plan: "we're going to sell them cheap books and legal addictive stimulants."
  • Mythology Gag: The bookstore is called The Shop Around the Corner, which of course is the title of the iconic 1940 film adaptation of this story.
  • 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?
    Christina: Cybersex.
    Birdie: I tried to have cybersex once, but I kept getting a busy signal.
    • When Kathleen believes she has been stood up, George sees an article about the arrest of the rooftop killer and he and Christina believe that it could be him:
    Kathleen: He couldn't possibly be the Rooftop Killer!
    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, we see each character's true nature. Joe makes it a point to calmly and politely phone the technician, while Patricia so rudely yells at the same technician. What's more, Patricia claims she'll get laser surgery if they get out, indicating she doesn't understand what's important in life. Although the two are business-oriented, Patricia doesn't share much with Joe: she 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 Surprisingly Realistic Outcome).
  • "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.
    • Depending on how one interprets it, Patricia has an alleged moment. She's normally self-centered, business-orientated and ruthless. But even she can see it would be a crime to leave someone as intelligent and talented as Kathleen without a career, and contemplates hiring her. Though Joe points out that out such an act would be insensitive (even in good faith), considering it would serve to rub salt in Kathleen's open wound. It doesn't stop her from contacting her.
  • 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:
    • 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.
    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.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
    • 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 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!"
  • Spiteful Gluttony: At the cocktail party, Kathleen sees Joe piling caviar on his plate. She chides him, saying "it's a garnish", and he takes even more to spite her.
  • Stopped Dead in Their Tracks: In one scene Joe is watching the news as he runs on a treadmill. A story about his feud with Kathleen's bookstore comes up. Having the reporter take his quote out of context was bad enough, but Kathleen's soundbite shocks him so much that he stops running and lets the treadmill pan him out of frame:
    "I have met Joe Fox. I've heard him compare his store to a Price Club and the books in it to cans of olive oil."
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: After her conversation with Joe in which he suggests 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."
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Just because a man and a woman either know 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 underdog doesn't always come out on top.
    • At one point later in the story, Kathleen and Frank are each surprised that although they share much in common, they just don't click as a couple. Being alike and being compatible aren't always the same thing. She and he are even relieved when they come to terms that they're better off as friends than lovers.
  • 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."
  • 'Turned Off By The Jerkass: Played with.
    • Downplayed with Joe and Patricia. When they get stuck in an elevator with two other people, first, Patricia yells at Juan the service guy over the elevator emergency phone. Then, when the other two passengers are genuinely worried about their safety and discussing deep, meaningful things they would do for their loved ones if they ever got out of the elevator, Patricia is wholly focused on shallow, self-centered things. Joe breaks up with her offscreen and moves out of her place.
    • Subverted with Kathleen and Frank. While they get into a fight after Frank calls Kathleen's family friend Birdie crazy for falling in love with Generalissimo Franco as a young woman, Frank ends up relenting and apologizing to her, confessing he's not in love with Kathleen and has fallen in love with someone else. Kathleen, who is also not in love with Frank, forgives him and they break up amicably.
  • Unseen Pen Pal: Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly meet through an online chat room for New Yorkers over 30 and agree not to share anything personal about themselves. In real life, however, the two are bitter business rivals, with his big box chain store threatening to put her independent children's bookshop out of business. Joe lashes out when he discovers Kathleen is his online love but decides to befriend her and cast suspicion on his online persona, playing with the fact that he could be anyone online. Kathleen is happy when Joe finally reveals himself.
  • 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 break up 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.
  • What You Are in the Dark: After Kathleen's run-in with Joe at the coffee shop (and subsequent insult), between their encounter and her online friend's absence, she reflects to him how her words were rather cruel and feels sorry for saying them because it didn't feel like herself. Before he read this post, Joe was convinced that Kathleen was an unpleasant woman through and through, and would've otherwise never spoken to her again. But seeing her apologetic words are what convinces him to indirectly apologize to her, and inspires him to mend the rift between them.