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by: Scott Renshaw

Notwithstanding its tres-90s-hip cyber-era premise -- two email chat pals fall in love online, little realizing they already know and dislike each other in the real world -- YOU'VE GOT MAIL is a very old-fashioned sort of romantic comedy. It's not just that the film is a spin on the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch comedy THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. Actually, it's more about the lead actors. You see, co-writer/director Nora Ephron seems to understand at last what the studio bosses of old understood, what she didn't understand in SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Sometimes a romance isn't about a concept, or a romance between characters. Sometimes it's about a romance between stars. YOU'VE GOT MAIL is about a romance between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Mind you, they do play characters in the film. Hanks is Joe Fox, whose family company is a chain discount bookstore; Ryan is Kathleen Kelley, whose family business is a neighborhood children's bookstore on Manhattan's Upper West Side just down the block from a brand new Fox Books. By day they're quarreling competitors, each with a fizzling relationship -- Joe with a caffeine-fueled editor (Parker Posey), Kathleen with a provocateur journalist (Greg Kinnear). By night they're lonely hearts correspondents, sharing deep thoughts on big issues.

YOU'VE GOT MAIL does manage to do an effective job of poking into the appeal and the problems of online interactions. It's easy for Kathleen (as "Shopgirl") and Joe (as "NY152") to connect while connected, revealing themselves more fully and more quickly in an environment where fear of rejection is mitigated by anonymity. At the same time, Ephron and sister Delia use variations on the idea that "it's not personal" to show how easy it is disconnect real people from the way we encounter them, whether in the flesh or after a cursor. Trust this writer -- who met his wife online, and knows whereof he speaks -- that the Ephrons get their subject right, right down to the embarrassment of people involved in The Love That Dare Not Type Its Username.

Yet even this thematic material is little more than a pleasant fringe benefit, because YOU'VE GOT MAIL is first and foremost a chance to watch two incredibly engaging performers together. It only takes a few moments watching Hanks and Ryan together to realize what SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, for all its storybook charms, was missing: Hanks and Ryan together. Here they bicker and banter, bond warily, and generally offer delights for all who watch. YOU'VE GOT MAIL's final half hour is an improvement over THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER in that it sets a stronger foundation for the rapproachment to come, but it also means plenty of time to enjoy the chemistry between the two stars. Hanks is playing Hanks (smart, funny and too-nice-for-words), Ryan is playing Ryan (smart, funny and too-cute-for-words), and it doesn't even matter that they're not trying very hard to create distinctive characters. Ephron just gives them clever things to say, and gets out of the way.

It's nice to see Ephron show some comic instinct again after the ineptitude of MICHAEL and MIXED NUTS, but even here there's a fair amount of flab in her film-making. The peeks into Joe's dysfunctional family, where all the men keep nabbing trophy wives, only makes the nice guy normalcy of Hanks-as-Hanks harder to accept, while the supporting cast (Posey, Kinnear, Dave Chappelle, Steve Zahn) is ominpresent without having much to do. Much of the first hour of YOU'VE GOT MAIL feels very inefficient, but fortunately Ephron saves the best for last. Even as the film creeps up on the two hour mark, it's unlikely to lose viewer interest, because that's when Hanks and Ryan shine brightest. YOU'VE GOT MAIL is a celebrity-powered wish-fulfillment, and that's okay. Sometimes it's enjoyable just watching nice things happen to nice people, even if the nice people involved happen to be movie stars.



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