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By now, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan have amassed such a fund of goodwill with moviegoers that any new onscreen pairing brings nearly reflexive smiles. In You've Got Mail, the quintessential boy and girl next door repeat the tentative romantic crescendo that made Sleepless in Seattle, writer-director Nora Ephron's previous excursion with the duo, a massive hit. The prospective couple do actually meet face to face early on, but Mail otherwise repeats the earlier feature's gentle, extended tease of saving its romantic resolution until the final, gauzy shot.
The underlying narrative is an even more old-fashioned romantic pas de deux that is casually hooked to a newfangled device. The script, cowritten by the director and her sister Delia Ephron, updates and relocates the Ernst Lubitsch classic The Shop Around the Corner to contemporary Manhattan, where Joe Fox (Hanks) is a cheerfully rapacious merchant whose chain of book superstores is gobbling up smaller, more specialized shops such as the children's bookstore owned by Kathleen Kelly (Ryan). Their lives run in close parallel in the same idealized neighborhood, yet they first meet anonymously, online, where they gradually nurture a warm, even intimate correspondence. As they begin to wonder whether this e-mail flirtation might lead them to be soul mates, however, they meet and clash over their colliding business fortunes.
It's no small testament to the two stars that we wind up liking and caring about them despite the inevitable (and highly manipulative) arc of the plot. Although their chemistry transcended the consciously improbable romantic premise of Sleepless, enabling director Ephron to attain a kind of amorous soufflé, this time around there's a slow leak that considerably deflates the affair. Less credulous viewers will challenge Joe's logic in prolonging the concealment of his online identity from Kathleen, and may shake their heads at Ephron's reinvention of Manhattan as a spotless, sun-dappled wonderland where everybody lives in million-dollar apartments and color coordinates their wardrobes for cocktail parties. --Sam Sutherland