Magic is an elusive quality, especially on screen, and once it's been captured, the temptation to try and recreate it can be tough to resist. Even those with the best intentions find the task a tall order and dicey proposition, for as everyone knows, lightning rarely strikes twice. 'You've Got Mail,' though, undertakes the daunting assignment of trying to scale not one, but two formidable hurdles - duplicating the potent chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that made 'Sleepless in Seattle' such a monumental hit, and reinventing (for the fourth time!) a classic tale that already had achieved legendary status in its three prior, well-respected incarnations. Director and co-writer Nora Ephron puts her best foot forward by putting a technological twist on a rather antiquated story, but the result still falls far short of expectations. 'You've Got Mail' may have its heart in the right place, but remains a middling romantic comedy that succeeds only in making us rue the fact we're not watching 'Sleepless in Seattle' instead.
Co-stars notwithstanding, both films share common traits, and it's that nagging retread feeling that drags 'You've Got Mail' down. Everything seems just a tad forced. Can Ryan ramp up her cuteness quotient? Can Hanks slather on more charm? Can the romance strike that universal chord? 'Sleepless in Seattle' possesses a seamless quality that allows it to naturally unfold, but the gears and pulleys are all too evident in this obvious follow-up. There's such a thing as trying too hard, and everyone involved in 'You've Got Mail' is guilty of that noble crime.
Though Ephron strives valiantly to update the story and fashion a believable, relatable hook, the plot is simply too contrived and outdated for modern taste. The original 1940 film, 'The Shop Around the Corner' (which is included on a separate DVD in this Blu-ray edition [see below]), is a true classic, and tells the captivating tale of two bickering perfume store clerks (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) in turn-of-the-century Budapest who, unbeknownst to each other, carry on a passionate friendship through written, anonymous correspondence. The movie, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, was so popular, MGM remade it nine years later as 'In the Good Old Summertime,' switching the locale to Chicago, changing the perfumery to a music store, and adding several period songs for star Judy Garland. Despite the alterations, the basic plot line, even much of the dialogue, remains the same, and the film was well received by the press and public. In the 1960s, a full-fledged musical adaptation of the material came to Broadway as 'She Loves Me,' and though it only scored a moderate success at the time, its reputation has grown over the years.
'You've Got Mail' makes more changes, transferring the action to Manhattan, putting the hero and heroine in the book business, and changing their method of communication to the Internet. (The most quaint aspect of the story is watching the leads log on to AOL via dial-up connections. Those definitely were not the days!) Kathleen Kelly (Ryan) owns an independent children's bookstore on the Upper West Side called, in a too-cutesy homage, The Shop Around the Corner. (Would anyone but a movie director intent on honoring her source material come up with such a name for a children's book dealer? Talk about retail suicide!) But when Fox Books, a mammoth megastore, moves into the neighborhood and instantly threatens her livelihood, Kathleen, in true David-and-Goliath fashion, tries to stand up to her competition. She meets Joe Fox (Hanks), one of the corporation's top executives, by chance one day, and the two butt heads as they wage commercial warfare, all the while ignorant of the fact they are constantly sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other via email and instant messaging. Their soulful correspondence has far more meaning than either of their respective romantic relationships, but once they decide to meet and lift the veil of anonymity, will their professional squabbles spoil any chance of happily ever after?
'You've Got Mail' possesses its share of sweetness and allure, but unfortunately, the story that worked so well as a nostalgic period piece set at the turn of the last century just doesn't resonate as strongly when updated to the turn of this century. Even if the other versions aren't ingrained in your consciousness, as they are in mine, it's difficult to buy the mechanics of 'You've Got Mail' in our harried, shorthand society. Lonely hearts clubs don't exist anymore, and though Internet dating is quite prevalent and trendy, how common is it to develop deep, spiritual relationships online based solely on voluminous emails? Though I admire Ephron for trying to impress upon us the power of words in a visual medium - as a writer myself, her passion touches me - the message requires a more modern story to achieve the necessary impact.
The film does well in its depiction of big corporations swallowing up mom-and-pop businesses (though it's ironic that just days after I watched this picture, the massive Borders chain filed for bankruptcy), but it falls short in the romantic department. Much has been made of the terrific chemistry Hanks and Ryan created in 'Sleepless in Seattle,' but we often forget that in that film they only shared the screen for a few brief minutes in the final scene. Here, they are together quite a bit more, and though both are excellent actors, the sparks just don't seem to fly this time around. Just as Ephron strives to color within the lines of an existing plot structure, Hanks and Ryan try, without much success, to muster their previous degree of romantic tension.
Part of the problem is that Ryan always plays the same character - adorable, perky, smart but not brainy, a little flustered, a tad lost, and, as the film opens, stuck in a nice yet unfulfilling relationship with obviously the wrong guy (here, it's Greg Kinnear). She's perfectly fine in her stereotypical Meg Ryan part, but the act has grown stale. Hanks is good, too, but he often seems like he's just going through the motions, and a couple of times his vocal inflections sound eerily like those of Woody from 'Toy Story.' (Strangely enough, it's not too much of a stretch to envision Ryan as Bo Peep!) The supporting cast contains some fine names - Jean Stapleton and Dabney Coleman among them - but no one makes much of an impression.
'You've Got Mail' drags on a bit too long and can't measure up to its more esteemed predecessors, but it's lovingly made and a pleasant enough diversion for those seeking a cozy date flick. If you're unfamiliar with the story, it may just charm the pants off you. But if you know it like the back of your hand, just stick with Jimmy and Margaret or Judy and Van Johnson, and move 'You've Got Mail' into your cinematic spam folder, where it really belongs.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'You've Got Mail' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The two-disc set includes the feature film and all the supplements on a BD-50 dual-layer disc and a bonus DVD of the 1940 classic, 'The Shop Around the Corner.' Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu with music appears directly following the Warner Home Video logo. No previews or promos precede the menu.
Just because 'You've Got Mail' is a remake of two films from Hollywood's Golden Age doesn't mean its transfer needs to look antiquated, too. But there's something about this 1080p/VC-1 effort that lends the movie an overly nostalgic feel, despite the plot line's contemporary, "high-tech" angle. Grain is evident, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest; it's the picture's highly textured appearance that often distracts and prevents the image from achieving the desired degree of clarity. Close-ups can be quite striking - there's one of Hanks that shows off every pore and lip crease to perfection - but they often exhibit a bit of softness. Background elements also tend to be slightly muddy at times.
A warm glow lends 'You've Got Mail' a cozy feel, and colors seem properly tuned. No explosions of saturated hues assault the eye, but primaries exhibit a nice vibrancy. Black levels are rich and deep - Ryan's dress in one scene looks particularly lush - and fleshtones remain stable and true throughout. The source material is clean, digital noise and banding are absent, and no artificial sharpening or DNR muck up the picture. As I don't have a DVD copy on hand for comparison purposes, I can't say whether this transfer significantly improves upon the previous standard-def release, but overall it's a solid effort. Just like the film itself, however, it won't knock your socks off.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is equally undistinguished, but possesses no great failings. Most of the sound is anchored up front, with few ambient effects bleeding into the rears. A bit of stereo separation adds welcome interest, yet is only really noticeable during musical interludes, and the subwoofer stays practically silent. Dialogue is the meat-and-potatoes of this film, and remains clear and comprehendible at all times. Though not in any way memorable, the music score enjoys fine fidelity and fills the room with warm tones, and no surface defects or distortion drag down the audio. This is one of those serviceable but bland tracks that gets the job done but won't provoke any ooohs and aaahs.
All of the special features from the 10th anniversary 2008 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and it's a nice spate of supplements that fans will especially enjoy.
The fourth time is never the charm, and 'You've Got Mail' proves even a classic story can only be told so many times before it wears out its welcome. This good-intentioned yet misguided attempt to cash in on and recreate the success of 'Sleepless in Seattle' pales in comparison to both its predecessor and the previous filmed versions of the tale, but diehard rom-com aficionados may still want to take it for a spin. Average video and audio quality don't pump up this disc's value (though fans will surely find it superior to any previous release), but those who own the special edition DVD will be happy to know the same supplemental package also appears here, with one notable addition - the original 'Shop Around the Corner' on DVD, which any discriminating film buff will end up playing far more often than the remake.