Rated PG - Running time: 1:59 - Released 12/18/98

As we move from the 20th century forward into the new millennium, the 1990s will surely be remembered for the advent of the Internet. In a few short years, it has completely changed the way we work, communicate, and process information. For some it has even played a major role in their personal lives (and I'm not just talking about Bill Gates). People have met, courted, and become engaged online, some without ever having met face to face. This is the story of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romance You've Got Mail, written and directed by Nora Ephron.

In what is essentially a reworking of Ephron's Sleepless In Seattle, the couple again play two strangers who turn out to be ideal mates even though (they think) they have never met in person. Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, owner of a well-known New York children's book store called The Shop Around The Corner. It has been in existence for over 40 years, first operated by Kathleen's mother who made it famous for its excellent service and knowledge of the product. Hanks plays Joe Fox, the owner and heir of the Fox Books Superstore chain, a sort of Wal-Mart for books. They carry a huge selection which they sell at discount prices, and they even offer cappuccino and sweets, but the staff is made up of kids who wouldn't know a good author if it bit them in the Asimov.

When Joe's company opens a store across from Kathleen's shop, the two meet and, not surprisingly, a mutually icy relationship develops. But what they don't realize is that they have been "dating" for months via electronic mail. Having made an agreement not to reveal any specifics about themselves, the two have become best friends (though they're both in ill-suited relationships), waiting anxiously each day to hear their computers utter the robotic title phrase. Kathleen even seeks her online buddy's advice about her current predicament. Joe tells her to go to war. So she does — with him.

Although Hanks and Ryan are both good actors and portray a comfortable "friend" relationship, the romantic chemistry between them is lacking. The film's magic moment (when Kathleen discovers Joe's identity) is touching, especially on Ryan's part, but somehow anticlimactic. This could be because it is not really a mutual surprise: Joe already knows, from early in the film, that his Internet lover and his bitter competition are one and the same. This weakens the potential impact of the revelation — one spends much of the film wondering why he doesn't fess up sooner.

Ryan is good at being a woman in love, but not really believable as a bookseller. Her lines imply that she is a mature, well-read intellectual, but her flighty manner makes it seem impossible for her to make it through anything more complex than Green Eggs And Ham. And Hanks is Hanks, virtually indistinguishable from his character in Sleepless. He doesn't have to worry, though; he's got the Best Actor nomination already in his pocket for Saving Private Ryan. The one who almost steals the show here is Greg Kinnear, who was nominated last year for his supporting role in As Good As It Gets. Playing Kathleen's boyfriend, a cynical newspaper columnist who hates computer technology and how it has de-personalized the world, he expounds on the evils of Joe's company and its ilk. His part allows Ephron to add her voice to the growing groundswell of antipathy for mega-discount stores in this country.

You've Got Mail is probably not as engaging as Sleepless, with which it will inevitably be compared, but it has its moments. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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