You’ve Got Mail (1998)

by | Apr 17, 2014 | Forum Archives, Suggested Stories

On the surface this film has a happy, predictable Hollywood ending that I enjoy, but something about the story has always bothered me.

Started by Will Cooper on 2014-04-17 at 01:28

I’ve seen this romantic chestnut a number of times, and I always get sappy when Joe and Kathleen finally embrace and kiss at the end. On the surface it’s a happy, predictable Hollywood ending that I enjoy, but something about the story has always bothered me. Something about it nags at me. I’d like to see if I can figure out what that is by applying DSYS.

Joe is the main character. His actions drive the story.

In the early going, he opens up a discount book megastore in Manhattan. He intends to drive all the small independent booksellers in the neighborhood, including Kathleen’s children’s book shop, out of business. After the two meet by accident, he resists an obvious attraction to her. They trade barbs and quarrel and try to avoid each other.

Their interpersonal relationship is the opposite of the one they have, unbeknownst to each other, as regular correspondents in an anonymous online chat room. Writing under the handles Shopgirl and NY152, they’ve become trusted confidantes and best friends. They feel a powerful meeting of minds that feeds mutual romantic fantasies. Their online affair makes them realize that their current love interests, Frank and Patricia, don't cut it, and they break up with them.

The story takes a sharp turn when Joe discovers that Shopgirl is in fact the “pill” Kathleen. Though he now knows the truth, he doesn’t tell her who he is.

Kathleen decides to close her store, which means that Joe has succeeded in reaching his initial goal, and this narrative thread ends. However, he now realizes that he loves her. He understands that her antipathy toward him is deserved. He also knows that behind her anger is the incomparable Shopgirl, the perfect woman. His intent now becomes to win her. He wages a campaign to convince her that he’s not such a bad guy, and even though Kathleen still resents him, his good humor and attention win her over. She still is attracted to NY151, but Joe’s sincerity and charm have made her fall in love with him, despite herself. When Joe finally feels that the moment is right, he writes her under the guise of NY151 and proposes that they meet in Central Park. The End.

What’s wrong with this story?

It’s entirely subjective, but I believe that the resolution is incomplete. Ephron wants it to be a succeed/pleased story, and were Joe’s only important condition of value the possession of Kathleen, it would be. However, that’s not true. For most of the movie, he wanted to put her out of business, and he succeeds. Joe is not a sympathetic character in terms of what he does for a living, even though he demonstrates that he’s basically a good guy. He makes it clear that he has cutthroat corporate values and is proud of his record of wiping out small competitors. I wasn’t pleased by his success, and the problem with this story is that it never softens the succeed/displeased story that dominates two-thirds of the movie.

Another problem is his deceptiveness. Why doesn’t he tell her the truth about who he is when he finds out that she’s Shopgirl? He manipulates her under false pretenses. She becomes his condition of value, but he treats her disrespectfully by not being forthright and honest. I always felt indignant on her behalf, despite Joe’s charm and his obvious good taste in desiring a woman like her. His actions made me feel that he didn’t deserve her. What the story needed was a resolution that undid the harm that he caused her. She loved the persona he projected as NY151, but that person was also capable of cold indifference to the pain he inflicted, saying that “it wasn’t personal, it was just business.” If he truly regretted putting her out of business, and deserved her forgiveness, then Ephron needed to show us that he had changed his ways. He needed to undo the damage. He didn’t.

What should the theme of this movie be? One should use deception to win the girl of your dreams, and rationalize the cold-blooded business tactics that ripped out her heart by destroying her family business, because success in doing so will bring you happiness? Much of what Joe’s character stood for left a bad taste in my mouth that the Hollywood ending couldn’t quite eradicate. I do get sappy when I watch the film, but, objectively, I feel like a sap for doing so.

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