There is a moment in You’ve Got Mail when it seems like everything’s about to change. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) sits purposefully at his laptop and, after an especially charming AOL Instant Messaging exchange with the enchanting Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), he poses a question: “Do you think we should ... meet?”
At least not yet. Visibly put off by the suggestion they abandon their online personas to take things IRL, Kelly closes her laptop as if such a suggestion is ludicrous and only brings it up again several conversations later. But, of course, meet they do. And after the feuding bookstore owners realize they’ve been chatting online and falling in love under pseudonyms for months, Kathleen and Joe take the natural next step: They kiss in the park and remind us that for the duration we’ve spent watching You’ve Got Mail, the two hadn’t even hugged.
Which is only part of why the Nora Ephron-directed 1998 vehicle changed modern love stories forever.
Of course, the premise of You’ve Got Mail was plucked from cinematic history. Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner (also the name of Kathleen Kelly’s store) saw two feuding shop owners fall in love as anonymous pen pals. And in 1987, 84 Charing Cross Road followed a similar trajectory when Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft (well, their characters) fell into friendship over a 20-year span after exchanging letters about books. Hell, even Cyrano de Bergerac (and 1987’s Roxanne) delivered love stories about ghostwriters and false personas. Which makes the idea of a late-nineties film about the best and worst parts of online anonymity seem like a natural progression. After all, humans have always struggled to find ways to be vulnerable while maintaining the illusion of perfection. And online dating was just another avenue through which to curate one’s persona. The thing is, You’ve Got Mail wasn’t merely an exercise in watching two adults navigate the complexities of age/sex/location. Instead, it served as the catalyst for a different type of love story altogether – one defined by transparency.
But not necessarily the transparency between the two main characters. Because neither Kathleen nor Joe are honest with each other until the end. The rest of us, however, get plenty of insight into their existing relationships, their familial dynamics and each character’s inability to (or success in) delivering the perfect zinger. We see the cracks in Kathleen’s relationship, and Joe’s profound unhappiness. And then we get to watch as they craft specific online personas in hopes of selling the best versions of themselves.
Which adds a new layer of relatability to romantic comedies, especially since so many of us have adopted personas for various reasons. And this effect has made the genre even richer. This year alone, To All the Boys I Loved Before charmed us with a story of the value behind one’s secret written thoughts and Crazy Rich Asians gave a hard look into what comes with fusing the mundane, everyday self with a world-famous persona. Plus, the under-seen Juliet, Naked borrowed from You’ve Got Mail by having its heroes forge a bond through their e-mail correspondence.
Of course, this isn’t to say that every romantic comedy was incredible in the wake of Ephron’s masterpiece. But the reason I think we keep returning to the gentle simplicity of You’ve Got Mail, especially around the holiday season, is because it’s so inherently human. We all want to look smart for the people we like, and we all want to hide the worst parts of ourselves while championing the personas we believe won’t fail us. But the effort that goes behind any of that is both purposeful and embarrassing, and You’ve Got Mail lays it all out.
So rarely do we get to see the work that goes into creating a version of ourselves we hope will win us approval and affection. So rarely do we get to see the reality of a person’s messy and complicated life juxtaposed atop their Godfather-esque career advice – or even how surprisingly scary it can be when someone you want to hang out with wants to hang out with you.
You’ve Got Mail may have served its story against a beautiful backdrop of expensive uptown apartments and caviar garnishes. But what’s made it so special is less the Hanks/Ryan formula or even the love story itself. Instead, it’s a celebration of persona versus personality and the quiet reminder that neither can live while the other survives. It’s a love story that is ordinary and even boring, but that’s the point. Because when we finally drop the façades we’ve held so close, we just become people who fight over which movie to rent. And, as Kathleen Kelly reminds us, who fights about that?