How I Fell in Love with Corporate America: You’ve Got Mail (1998)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Yesterday I caught on TV the Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail. I had seen it when it originally came out and at the time I did not have first-hand knowledge of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 masterful The Shop Around the Corner, on which Ephron’s film was based. I am not one to complain about Hollywood not being able to leave well enough alone – or to feel nostalgia for a lost era of human communication, when computers had not entirely replaced handwritten letters (I have even difficulties explaining to my five year-old what a post stamp is, since he has never seen one).
But when a lingering shot of a corner Starbucks appeared on the screen, all the reasons I had disliked this movie came back to me. When I saw it in 1998, I had not noticed the flagrant product placement, the many references to Starbucks (Tom Hanks comments on the options paralysis generated by its wide variety of offer) or the fact that the characters regularly get their coffee from there. It does seem though symmetrically ironic.
You’ve Got Mail is, on the surface, a story of two people falling in love over emails (after having met in a chat room), an update of the ‘old fashioned’ original, where they simply exchanged letters. The two main characters, portrayed by Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, are business rivals, unlike James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan who were coworkers in the same store, constantly getting on each others’ nerves. Ryan is playing the owner of a small bookshop, specialized in children’s literature and something of a legend in its area, while Hanks is the owner of the huge chain bookstore that is soon going to put her out of business.
There is the occasional comment about the impact internet has on human relationships (by the token intellectual, ‘in love’ with his typewriter, played by Greg Kinnear), and the occasional attempt to save the ‘Shop around the corner’ (the name of Ryan’s bookshop and an obvious tribute to the original film) from closing down. Nevertheless, no one seems particularly invested in these actions and the viewer is left with counting the moments until the final revelation of the characters’ true identities and the uniting of the two lovers.
It is very difficult not to see love as the consolation price for having been put out of business – one that Ryan was emotionally as well as financially invested in, since she had inherited it from her mother and her employers doubled as her friends (they also, inevitably, lose their jobs). Meg Ryan is forced into closing her shop, after gradually losing customers to Hanks’ rival bookstore, that offers unbeatable discounts and cappuccino. She is rewarded though with falling in love with its affable owner, while the demise of her business is presented as an opportunity for personal growth: having more time in her hands, she discovers her ‘true calling’ as an author of children’s literature (with impeccable taste). There is also a decidedly anti-feminist slant here, as the competitive world of business is presented as unsuitable for its female lead, with the creative work of writing children’s books (not ‘real’ literature) presented as a more appealing alternative.
Tom Hanks – who is, let’s face it, adorable – cast as the ‘representative’ of this corporation certainly does not hurt the film, and his presence is not at all threatening or aggressive, although his business tactics are. In a key scene, three generations of men are gloating over the closing of a competitor’s bookshop and the constant growth of their own business, even though the depiction of both Hanks’ father and grandfather has a touch of the ridiculous. The bemused look of the father who has resigned to his (much younger, stereotypical) wife’s spending and buying of pointedly useless stuff is supposed to furnish comic nuance, but it comes across as offensive in the context of a conversation which involves people losing their jobs and financial independence. Hanks’ comment that he’s buying his competitor’s stock on architecture and the history of New York (for whatever it costs) is even worse, because it makes him come off as charitable, as if his generous offer was compensation enough for the damage done. He’s a good guy, so the viewer is compelled to overlook what he does for a living. It’s a fair capitalist society after all.
On the contrary, the scene in The Shop Around the Corner where James Steward is dismissed from his job, after his employer unfairly suspects him of sleeping with his wife, is one of the most poignant in the entire film. Lubitsch condenses the weight of the moment in a shot of Stewart being forced to hand over the humble insignia of his position, such as the notebook with the Matuschek logo. Although the 1940 film, set in Budapest, does not dwell on contemporary politics, unemployment looms large in the background (think of the insistence that borders on desperation of Sullavan’s application for a job position at the beginning of the film). The agony of losing one’s livelihood – and the possibility of having to cope with a cold winter and hunger – is rendered here with a piercing simplicity.
You’ve Got Mail, on the other hand, works unwittingly – and very effectively – as corporate propaganda for big businesses and chain stores, sublimating the aggressive workings of the capitalist market into romantic love, personal fulfillment, and necessary ‘progress’. Too bad that the people that have since lost their jobs to the increasingly ubiquitous chain stores did not have the good luck, or good sense, to fall in love with their multimillionaire owners.