I cannot believe that I have spent the last 20 years getting into internet arguments about who the real villain in The Devil Wears Prada is (it’s Andy’s boyfriend; we must end this; I’m begging you) when I could’ve been stirring the pot with wild (but accurate) takes about who the real villain is in You’ve Got Mail. Preeminent
good guy great guy Tom Hanks has built a career off winning performances, being better than literally everyone else in real life, and never playing the villain. Or so they say. But the fact is, in Nora and Delia Ephron’s 1998 rom-com, Hanks’ character, mega-bookstore owner Joe Fox, is a sort-of nice guy but also the actual bad guy. Everything that goes wrong in this movie is his fault. And yet, somehow, we love him and want him and Meg Ryan’s character, independent bookstore owner Kathleen Kelly, to end up together. Such is the power of Tom and Meg together and such is the power of the Ephron sisters’ resolutely romantic view of such often-uninspiring topics as capitalism, the changing face of the Upper West Side, and reaching each other through the internet.
And it’s the last topic—remote connection—that brings us here today. Why are we discussing a 22-year-old romcom in the Year of Our Anxiety 2020? Because maybe we have a little more time on our hands, maybe we’re looking for something that will distract, and maybe we’re all thinking anew about the benefits and drawbacks of venturing into the world virtually. You’ve Got Mail, with its soundtrack of AOL dial-up and its notable lack of cell phones, is certainly a product of a bygone era, but the core ideas of the film couldn’t be more timely as the nation retreats to our homes, logs on, and reaches out.
In 1998, I was a junior in high school and, during a conversation about You’ve Got Mail, one classmate breathlessly relayed to us that she knew someone who had actually done “online dating.” It’s the classmate’s aunt and not only had this aunt tried “online dating” (a terrifying term!), but she’d married the man she met through the internet! We all stopped what we were doing and gathered around the classmate to listen like she was Rosalind Franklin and we were Watson and Crick trying to get the goods on DNA.
As foreign as the idea of logging on and meeting up may have seemed when the movie came out, Kathleen and Joe’s courtship actually plays out in a quotidian fashion. They’re not really doing online stuff; they’re writing letters back and forth over email. And not just any letters; pithy missives full of wry observations like, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.” That’s Joe to Kathleen early in the film, just before saying he’d buy her a bouquet of freshly-sharpened pencils if he knew who she was. Let me tell you: This is a deranged way of speaking to another person and I swoon every time. Kathleen and Joe use the internet to express such deep longing for the world and for connection in quaint terms that it leaps through time and through the screen (and through the miasma of my Lysol-scented quarantine). I watch it, holed up in my house, and I think, “What I wouldn’t give for a bouquet of freshly-sharpened pencils.”
While the movie is a love letter to the Upper West Side and full of lush walking-around shots, the action happens in the interiors: Joe and Kathleen tapping away at their computer screens, Kathleen wistfully lingering in her bookshop before it closes, Joe getting trapped in an elevator with his girlfriend Patricia Eden (Parker Posey). “I lead a small life,” Kathleen writes to Joe. “Well, valuable but small. And sometimes I wonder: Do I do it because I like it or because I haven’t been brave?” But the smallness doesn’t come from not being out and about, it comes from the reticence to treat online connection as real. This is a movie that wouldn’t think twice about remote working or switching an in-person meeting to a FaceTime confab. In You’ve Got Mail, the internet is not an intermediary or an obstacle. The internet is people, in their houses, bathed by blue light, finding ways to put into the words the ineffable.
In retrospect, it’s amazing how much mileage director Nora Ephron got out of keeping her two very appealing leads apart for so much of the film. If they’re together too much, the internet loses its magical pull. And so we want them to retreat back to their homes and log on. We appreciate the lively worlds they inhabit but we long to see them staying in and finding new depths. Of course, this is a tactic that Ephron masterfully employed in another Tom & Meg romcom, Sleepless in Seattle (another great unintentional paean to social distancing, which I’ll revisit later this week). Perhaps a takeaway here is the simple idea that you don’t have to be face-to-face to experience the most extraordinary parts of being a human.
So, yes, Tom Hanks is the villain, and the internet is the hero, and that’s how we know this movie is fiction: an escapist delight for a time when we’re all trying to escape. And yes, there are some parts, like the shuttering of a beloved small business, that hit a little too close to home. But right now everything and everyone is too close to their home, tapping away in the blue screen light or staring out the window wondering who and what is beyond the glass.
Toward the end of the film, reflecting on their ever-deepening cyber courtship, Kathleen writes, “All this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.” That’s the exact same energy I want to manifest when I finally get to leave my house and all the weird crafts I’ve taken up, the online workouts I’ve started and abandoned, the Zoom meetings I’ve forgotten to mute myself for. It’s also the energy I want to carry with me now, knowing that the connection as sharp and satisfying as a freshly-sharpened pencil sits just on the other side of my screen.