Megastore book owner Joe is conducting an anonymous email relationship with Kathleen, who runs a small children's bookstore. When he meets her in the flesh, he falls for her but since he's about to put her store out of business does not want to reveal who he really is.
The third collaboration between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan - after the forgotten flop of Joe Versus The Volcano and the mega success of Sleepless In Seattle - restakes their claim to be the monarchy of modern romantic comedy. An update of Ernst Lubitsch's James Stewart-Margaret Sullivan starrer The Shop Around The Corner (feuding co-workers are unwitting pen pal lovers) You've Got Mail attempts to imbue cold 90s technology with a warm fuzziness reserved for kids and kittens. And, in the face of well worn formula, it works. Kind of.
Echoing the contrivance of Sleepless' long distance romance, You've Got Mail's premise has a likeable, corny simplicity about it: corporate book shop owner Joe Fox (Hanks) is engaged in an e-mail relationship with Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), proprietor of traditional, family run children's book store - cue Lubitsch nod - The Shop Round The Corner. Using cyberspace monikers - his NY152, hers Shopgirl - the two remain blissfully unaware of each other's real lives: chiefly that both are already in relationships - Joe with power hungry book editor Patricia (a wasted Posey), Kathleen with egomaniacal columnist Frank (Kinnear) and more pertinently that Joe is launching a massive bookstore opposite Kathleen's, potentially wiping out her charming, quaint little emporium.
The plot unravels with NY152 and Shopgirl becoming more emotionally embroiled via e-mail - the film leans heavily on images of the stars typing (never the stuff of great cinema) with Ephron displaying a keen, entertaining ear for the banality that traverses internet chat rooms - while, in the real world, Joe and Kathleen fight a war of attrition.
Unfortunately the development of the lightweight conceit is far too thin to sustain the running time. As ever, Ephron is good on the ammunition deployed in the battle of the sexes - there is an excellent running gag on the importance of The Godfather to men and Pride And Prejudice to women that has shades of Sleepless In Seattle's The Dirty Dozen versus An Affair To Remember debate - yet the gags never really deliver the punch of the truly memorable. Moreover, the writing is let down by Ephron's broad, lazy direction: far too often, there is an overdependence on songs to supply the emotional core of each scene - indeed, the romantic pay-off, when it comes, is shockingly mismanaged.
Yet, the film's theme - the importance of the "personal" touch, both in cyberspace or running bookstores - is seductively argued and the whole thing is winningly sweet-natured and attractively sentimental. Hanks, by sheer dint of his Tom Hanksness, invests Joe with a likeability and down-to-earth integrity whereas Ryan adds a vitality and steely streak to her customary ditzoid charms. Together, they are enormously ingratiating, a strong testament to the chemistry of star power. That said, as a loved up duo should perhaps quit while they're just about ahead.
Hanks and Ryan are masters at making this kind of slight rom- com work, but even they run out of steam before the end.