You've got malls

Nora Ephron's update of "The Shop Around the Corner" rails against corporate chain stores to predictably bland effect.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the middle of Nora Ephron's new romantic comedy, "You've Got Mail," Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the owner of a small children's bookstore on Manhattan's Upper West Side, stages a protest against the big chain bookstore just opened around the block. If her neighbors persist in patronizing the chains and let independent stores like hers go out of business, she warns, then someday they'll step out their doors and "won't even be able to tell you're in New York." But, even later on, when the audience at the screening I attended laughed and applauded to see two of the movie's characters taking their seats in the same Upper West Side movie theater we were sitting in, I still wasn't quite convinced that any of this stuff was taking place in New York. The unrecognizably bland, denatured city occupied by the characters in "You've Got Mail" makes Woody Allen's misty-eyed "Manhattan" look like "Midnight Cowboy."

Of course, nothing could be more predictable than a New Yorker complaining about overly wholesome depictions of Gotham. I'm hastening to claim the concession on gripes lamenting that "You've Got Mail" makes Manhattan seem just like Seattle, the setting for Ephron's earlier Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vehicle. If every critic who makes that observation has to give me a dollar, by next week even I shall be able to afford to live in an Upper West Side brownstone. (Not that I want to, mind you. I've only lived in New York for nine months, but I already know better than that.)

You see, despite the fact that I'm not even a real New Yorker, Ephron's got me acting like a clichi. Movies like "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle" have the diabolical, and profitable, ability to make people behave like demographic units, which makes this film's purported theme -- the culturally homogenizing threat of chain retailers -- a particularly odd choice. All sorts of intractable conflicts float around in the ether of "You've Got Mail," from the pitched battle between corporate and local business to the deceptive seductiveness of disembodied communication, but no one ever gets too worked up about any of it. No trouble or tragedy provokes much more than a wrinkle of Ryan's adorable, turned-up nose. It's as if the whole movie's on Prozac, only in this case the antidepressants are cuteness and romance.

Kathleen and Joe Fox (Hanks), owner of the chain imperiling her livelihood, have been corresponding anonymously via e-mail and slowly falling in love, unaware that they're arch enemies. They've even met face to face at a book party and decided to loathe each other after he accuses her shop of being "inconsequential but filled with its own virtue." Each is already ensconced in a comfortable relationship, she with an obsessive, crusading columnist for the New York Observer (Greg Kinnear), he with a loud, gossipy, crass book editor (Parker Posey). The movie cribs its story (and the name of Kathleen's store) from Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic "The Shop Around the Corner" and many of its supporting figures from New York's literati. Kinnear's character is based on columnist and typewriter fetishist Ron Rosenbaum and Posey's on celeb-chasing HarperCollins editor and TV talk-show host Judith Regan. Please hold your knowing chuckles until the end of the show.

Despite the media in-jokes and the scenes shot at Zabar's and the ripped-from-the-headlines (well, if you read Publisher's Weekly) controversy and the e-mails Kathleen and Joe exchange about adoring autumn in the city, the New York of "You've Got Mail" still feels ersatz. (Which reminds me: I'm taking dibs on the Giuliani/Disney analogy concession as well.) Why are these people so mellow? A significant subtheme concerns the foolishness of saying mean things to others, no matter how beastly their behavior. It requires a pep talk from her nameless e-correspondant to convince Kathleen to mount a PR battle with Fox Books, and once inspired, she bounces like a pixie around her shop, pathetically shadow boxing with her little stick arms in the least persuasive display of aggression imaginable. I've seen people fight for a subway seat with more conviction. As for Hank's Joe, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentson, he's no Len Riggio. Except for a few nasty cracks about "seducing them with our square footage, our deep armchairs and a cappuccino" he's a pussycat of a multimillionaire who does his own grocery shopping and brings tots to the neighborhood carnival for face-painting. Aw.

The Big Apple of "You've Got Mail" isn't just devoid of class distinctions, drama, passion, compelling ambition, lust, rage, neurosis and loneliness -- it's also ethnically monotonous. Woody Allen has been needled for his vision of a Manhattan without blacks and Latinos, but Ephron has done him one better. With the possible (and implausible) exception of Kinnear's character, hers is a New York without Jews -- and what could possibly be the point of that?

What Ephron's New York does have in abundance, however, is a calculated niceness, from the princess hat Kathleen wears as she reads stories to her diminutive clientele, to the way everyone gathers together around the piano to sing Christmas carols, to the big shaggy golden retriever nudging his head under Joe's arm as he types another charming message to Kathleen, to the hollyhock-filled garden where the movie finds its sentimental conclusion. All of the strife, and the indignation that inspired it, melt away in a haze of romance. This is the exact breed of generic lifestyle niceness that chain retail offers its customers, and even Kathleen laps it up -- she spends a lot of time in Starbucks for someone who's got issues around chains. For all that Ephron half-heartedly protests this encroachment, she's supplying something pretty similar and will probably find as much success. Partake if you must, but consider yourself warned: This concoction is strictly decaf.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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