Friday, May 15, 2009

Act Climaxes breakdown: You've Got Mail

Last weekend I did this workshop for the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers (a must-join organization if you live in the Raleigh/Durham area, no matter what genre you're writing), and, inspired by that great group, today I’m going to come out of the dark for a day and hit the plot points of a popular lighter movie. ( I swear, talking to a group like that and hearing their favorite movies can make me feel like the walking undead.)

You’ve Got Mail

Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron,
Based on the play by Miklos Lazlo
Directed by Nora Ephron

In my own, admittedly biased (or maybe more specifically, dark and twisted) opinion, You’ve Got Mail endures more because of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than because of anything else in the movie, but it’s a great romantic comedy to look at structurally if you are writing a love story in which the hero and heroine are completely equal characters; it’s almost a toss-up as to who is the actual protagonist, here.

For me it’s Tom Hanks, simply because he has a bigger character arc to experience, and he clearly takes control of the movie in the last thirty minutes. But the point of view, I think, is more Meg Ryan’s, and the Ephrons give her some crucial scenes that usually belong to the protagonist. I’ll be interested to hear what other people have to say about it.

(For the record, their character names are Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, but somehow I just keep calling them Tom and Meg.)

I also find YGM an interesting movie to look at because the Inciting Event (or Call To Adventure, depending on whose vocabulary you’re using) actually happens before the movie starts: Meg and Tom have already met on line, in a chat room, and are well into their emotional infidelity, I mean, internet romance, when the movie opens.

Another fairly unique thing about the movie is that the opening image and the Into The Special World, or Crossing the Threshold scene, are combined. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen an “Into the Special World” scene, although now that I think about it, the opening image often is our first glimpse at a Special World (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Witness, Bladerunner, Star Trek, Arachnophobia).

What we see as the opening image is – of course – a computer screen, and animation of an unseen user clicking through icons to sign on to the internet, which turns into animated graphics of the skyline of Manhattan, zeroing in on one graphic of a specific building on the West Side (which this movie really is a love poem to), which dissolves into the real building, which is Meg’s home.

We meet both characters and it’s easy see Tom’s problem and NEED/INNER DESIRE right away: while he is a terrific guy on line, in his real life he is a corporate asshole (as much as Tom Hanks is ever really an asshole), who doesn’t care - in fact, he gloats - that his mega-volume bookstore is putting all the independent bookstores in the neighborhood out of business (even before the megastore opens).

Meg has an extermal problem – the mega-volume bookstore that’s going to be her little store’s direct competition – but she doesn’t really have an internal character flaw that needs to change– except, of course, for that online infidelity thing, which isn’t taken seriously as a problem by this movie. (But really, doesn’t anyone else see that as a little problematic?)

The climax of Sequence 1 (15 min 22 seconds) is the reveal that while Tom and Meg are completely infatuated with each other online, in real life Tom is the corporate suit who is threatening Meg’s charming independent children’s book store (called The Shop Around The Corner, a nice nod to the Ernst Lubitsch-directed/Samson Raphaelson-written film on which this story is based).

The Act I Climax (33 minutes or so) takes place at the end of a montage in which Tom spends a day with his little brother and nine-year old aunt (Tom’s father has a penchant for younger women). In this montage we clearly see Tom’s INNER DESIRE – he wants children and a real family, and obviously has a heart full of love to lavish on – someone.

And lo and behold, his young – relatives – drag him into Meg’s shop to hear “the storybook lady” (this I believe would count as the Hero Entering the Special World), and we see Tom fall for Meg as she reads to a group of children (they are right for each other: they want the same things – books and family). This is a love story, so the climax of the act is “boy meets girl” (in real life this time) – but at the same time he realizes, as we do, that the huge obstacle to their relationship is that she will hate him when she finds out that he is her megastore competition. (However, he still has no idea that Meg is his online infatuation.)

So of course, he conceals his identity (one of the most classic elements of romantic comedy), in a scene in which he is almost discovered, several times, as his very, very young brother almost spills the beans – repeatedly.

Also, this Act I Climax escalates the romance in a very concrete way – the online romance becomes real-life – on Tom’s side, anyway.

The climax of Sequence Three you could say is the dueling Christmas carols scenes (the hero and heroine on parallel tracks that show they are right for each other) but I’d say it’s the scene after, in which we and Meg realize that her shop is failing. (About 47 minutes in). But this is a good example of the dual climax pattern you often see in a romantic comedy, in which you’ll have a scene that shows the hero and heroine are meant to be, and then undercut it with a scene of what is keeping them apart.

And right after that there’s another escalation to the online romance – Tom I.M.s her for the first time. And he gives her the advice to “go to the mattresses”. Another classic romantic comedy trope – one lover playing the confidante to the loved one while the loved one obliviously babbles on about the lover to himself – and in this case counseling her on how to destroy him.) And the negative publicity Meg brings to Tom and his store makes Tom resent and dislike her.

The Midpoint comes (62 minutes) when Tom takes Meg up on her request to her anonymous online “Friend” to meet. In the big reveal, Tom (through his ALLY, an extremely underdeveloped character, here) realizes the woman he has fallen in love with online is Meg, his enemy. At the Midpoint climax, Tom says he’s just going home, not meeting her – but then in a twist turns around and goes back into the shop and pretends that he’s just run into her by accident – as himself.

Sequence Five Climax: (1 hr. 15 min) is the comic scene of Tom trying to answer Meg's e mail about why he (as NY152, his online persona) didn't show up to meet her. After several failed attempts, he writes a lovely and heartfelt apology.

And then the second part of the climax - Meg tells Birdie and the other shopgirl at lunch that she's decided to close the shop. (Again the one-two punch climax of this movie's structure - the love story advances in one scene only to be undercut in the next.

1 hour 27 minutes: Tom is stuck in the elevator with his girlfriend and moves out on her as soon as they are freed. then comes the Moment of Defeat (All is Lost, Long Dark Night of the Soul....) - Meg has to close the shop.

Here is where I think structurally the movie wobbles and gets a little lost. The filmmakers give Meg the moment of defeat, and it’s a very powerful one – seeing her in the empty shop and visualizing her mother playing with her, as she closes the door for the last time. (1 hr. 30 min.) But really Tom is the protagonist, and HE needs to be the one affected in this way – at least in that when Meg e mails her “friend” about closing the shop, Tom should realize he has lost her for good, because he’s caused her such pain. Boy Loses Girl.

At least, that’s what is missing for me, emotionally and structurally.

Somehow that doesn’t come across, even when (a little earlier) Tom sees Meg visiting the children’s section of his own store and she cries as she directs a customer to a book that the hapless superstore clerk has never heard of. I get Meg’s pain, there, but not enough effect on Tom.

Now (1 hr. 32 min) Tom has another revelation when his father separates from his current girlfriend and comes to stay with Tom on his boat. Tom doesn’t want to be like his father, and when his father says – “Come on, have you ever been with anyone who's ‘filled your heart with joy’?” Tom has the realization that Meg has. So in Act Three, he starts his FINAL PLAN to win her: he is going to court her as himself, and make her fall in love with him.

Now, this is a lovely love sequence, and I get that this is a smart and realistic plan, but this part of the movie always bothers me – it seems to start a whole new movie just when I’m looking for the old one to escalate and climax. It takes me a long time to adjust to this new story track, even though there are some good moments between them.

1hr. 45 minutes - Sequence Seven climax: Tom visits Meg when she’s sick, to check up on her; they have chemistry and we see her think of him romantically for the first time (since their initial meeting). He also drops enough clues that she might suspect that he is her online "friend".

Then Sequence Eight is the battle – a love battle – because Tom really is fighting to win her – by being charming, and by being her friend, while he disparages her online relationship and tries to get her to detach herself from that fantasy. He has that great speech just before she goes off to meet his online persona – “Ever wonder what it would have been like if I’d just met you and I hadn’t been your competition, and just asked you to a movie, or to coffee, or a movie… for as long as we both shall live?” (I’m paraphrasing, but something like that – it’s very well-written and played.)

And in the final final scene, he has arranged for her to meet his online persona in the 91st Street Garden – and shows up as himself, and Meg tells him, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”

Which for me redeems the whole movie, although I could have done without the swelling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. But I’ve heard from others that they find it a weak ending.

The bottom line, though, is - if you're writing a romantic comedy with elements of mistaken identity, concealed identity, and equal love interests, this one should most likely be on your list of ten to take a look at - though not higher on the list than, you know, AS YOU LIKE IT and TWELFTH NIGHT and CYRANO DE BERGERAC and, a little more recently, THE LADY EVE. ;)

So how do others feel about the movie? Enduring classic or unendurable chick flick? Anyone have a different idea about who’s the protagonist? Is it just me, or is there something just rhythmically off about the third act? What is it?


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Anonymous said...

I have to say, "You've Got Mail" was never one of my favorites, although Tom and Meg have an undeniable chemistry. I never really stopped to think about WHY it was never one of my favorites, but, I think it's like you say: a rhythm problem. I don't like movies that seem to end and then start over again. That's why Australia doesn't get two thumbs up from me, despite Hugh Jackman.

And I also have a problem with emotional infidelity... or physical infidelity, too, come to think of it. I'm not a huge fan of movies where both parties (or one of them) are attached to someone else and then come to find each other during or after getting out of those attachments (although The Wedding Singer is a notable exception, since both of the people they were attached to were such asses).

Mary Margret said...

Would you believe there's not a copy of YGM to be had in this town? I've looked everywhere--and will continue to look. Until this discussion, I hadn't realized how similar structurally my WIP is to YGM.

Although I like YGM, you've put your finger on what always bothers me about it.

I like two almost equal protagonists, and I especially like that we get to see the action from two POV's. I feel much more personally engaged.

I wish I could see it--to make sure I'm getting my facts right--but what bothers me about the story (as a romance)is that Meg is good for Tom, but I don't see how Tom is good for Meg.

The relationship, which I have enjoyed watching develop, doesn't mature. Meg has lost what was most important to her--I'm not convinced she's gotten anything that's worth more.

Your structural analysis makes clear what bothers me and what would fix it.

Meg does have an internal conflict--or at least she should. When the movie begins she's stuck in the past, attempting to maintain her relationship with her mother through the bookstore. In essence she is attempting to extend her mother's life by keeping the bookstore "alive." Her life is emmeshed with her mother's.

I'm always amused that it's the Other Woman who first understands Meg as an entity separate from her love of the store.

What I feel is missing from the third act is a clear understanding that Meg has now grown up, and embraced being fully individualized, and therefore, she is now ready for a real-world relationship.

Perhaps against her will, she is a better person now than she was. She can forgive Tom and move on.

Does this make sense?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sonja, I'm so glad to hear that emotional infidelity bothers you, too. I mean, come on! If you're running to the computer to get your emotional and romantic and erotic thrills, then butch up and admit you should break up.

I understand that "they should break up" is the POINT - but movies like this never seem to have the characters realize that they're being immoral - they just get easily let off the hook by their partners falling for someone else. It just bothers me.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

OMG, Mary Margret - you are TOTALLY right about Meg needing to get past living her mother's life.

Wow, thank you!

And I do love that the Other Woman is the one who first sees her individual potential (although it would have been even greater if she was the one who hired Meg to write her first book...)

But I have to disagree with you about what Meg gains and whether Tom is good for her.

IT'S TOM HANKS!!! At his most adorable and sexy!!!

And come on, he makes her laugh, which all women want. Even Jessica Rabbit.

Where do I sign?

lucidkim said...

When this movie came out for many of us this email/online stuff was all new...the idea of pouring your heart out to someone in the "void" was more alien then than it is now. I mean - I think we are all more aware that online relationships can be very emotional and we can connect on a deep level and it is seen as emotional infidelity. I think more back then it was seen as a harmless friendship - think of how Meg responds when talking to one of her workers about it..."it's's nothing" she doesn't view it as being that serious - until much later in the movie (by which time she has broken up with her boyfriend). I don't know - I'm defending it - but suddenly I'm seeing both of them waiting until their 'others' are gone before going online. I suppose that does acknowledge it wouldn't be viewed well.

Anyway. I love the movie for many reasons, but I've never liked the ending. I can't say specifically how I would make it better, but I know it could be done. It's just I need for Meg to be in love with Tom as Tom - not because he's the guy online. Maybe if she put it together herself I'd like it more, but to me it makes the relationship uneven and it makes me think less of Tom's he's lying to her all the time, toying with her, manipulating her - and that she accepts it with one tilt of her head and says, "I wanted it to be you" rings false to me. Her character is pretty strong/opinionated and I would expect anger from her - not emotionally dissolving, no forgiveness even considered necessary.

I'm going on too long here - I do love the movie and there are so many quotes from it that stick with me and things from the movie I relate to...but the ending feels like a cop-out to me. Like the writers got tired of writing and just threw it together.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Kim, it's that obvious sneaking around that makes it feel to me as if they're being disingenuous about the harmlessness of the relationship.

You're not the only one I know who has problems with the end.

But it's funny how we're all willing to spend this much time talking about the movie, even when there's something clearly missing there for - maybe not everyone, but a LOT of people I know.

Oh, and you say:

"he's lying to her all the time, toying with her, manipulating her" -

This is absolutely standard for a certain kind of romantic comedy, though. So what does that say? Love is by definition manipulative? Or we have to get over our inclination toward manipulation to be truly in love?

Gayle Carline said...

I didn't like YGM. Love Meg, Love Tom, hate the movie, probably for the most mean-spirited, superficial of reasons: Tom ruins Meg's business, puts other people out of work, leaves a landlord with an empty store to rent, and then gets the girl, as what, a reward? If I were Meg, I'd want a little vengeance. Call me heartless.

For a light comedy that shows the growth of two people (plus killer locales), I'd rather watch "French Kiss."


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Huh, Gayle, I see your point. Tom remains an unrepentant corporate asshole.

No wonder so many of us have problems with the end of this movie.

Mary Margret said...

"Tom ruins Meg's business, puts other people out of work, leaves a landlord with an empty store to rent, and then gets the girl, as what, a reward? If I were Meg, I'd want a little vengeance."

Thank you Gayle. That's what I mean when I say, I don't think Tom, on the whole, is good for Meg.

Nor do I see how she has benefited emotionally. She's not a better, stronger, more self-aware, or enlightened person for knowing him.

At the very least, I'd like to see him grovel.

Gayle Carline said...

Alex, I think the problem with this story has to do with what you've been teaching in this blog about the protagonist vs. villain dynamic. Meg & Tom don't quite fit those roles, but Tom's power clearly overwhelms Meg's character. They are not evenly matched.

Perhaps a better resolution to the story is for Meg to learn some corporate strategies and fend off Tom's takeover, and Tom to learn to value the small business owner.

Then they can fall in love - they have my approval. LOL.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, I half agree with you, Gayle - I don't think Tom as a character overwhelms Meg with his power because he's the one who realizes he's in love with her first, and that gives HER more power in the relationship, even though she doesn't know it.

I do agree that there's something off about the hero/villain relationship. The thing is, in a romantic comedy the hero and heroine (or let me just be inclusive and say "couple")
are almost always in antagonism, and that's definitely the dynamic here. The imbalance is more, for me, that Tom has most of the protagonist's main scenes AND most of the villain's main scenes, except for Meg getting that huge "All is Lost" moment at the end of Act 2.

It would be interesting to read the Ephron's original script to see what was cut, and changed. because God knows this could be a case of the studio making cuts that threw the thing off balance, or even more likely, giving more scenes to Tom Hanks because he's the bigger star, and certainly was at the time.

Mary Margret said...

Very interesting and enlightening discussion, Alex! Thank you.

billie said...

I came over here to see when your book comes out, and saw you've been breaking down You've Got Mail!

I confess, I love this movie, partly for the chemistry and partly for the location and the romance it adds to the entire movie.

I have always hated the ending. The music and the last line felt completely wrong. I think I would have ended it when Barkley ran into the scene and then Tom called him and appeared from around the corner.

I'm very interested to read your take on the two MCs and the way the arcs are handled. (my current wip has two as well and I'm in the thick of this very thing right now)

The one thing I'll add is that by being forced to close the bookstore, Meg discovers her own gift - writing children's books - and goes on to do that. It's not given much screen time, but it was enough for me to feel that what she lost was replaced by something more "hers" than the store had been. And that Tom, in his way, had facilitated that.

Glad I stopped by!! Can't wait to read The Unseen.

Anonymous said...

I loved the movie, it was really a sweet love story--and I who have never liked Tom Hanks before, fell in love with him in the movie. I thought the weakness was in his matter-of-fact reaction to his putting her out of business, even AFTER he was less of an a-ho. I kept expecting him to swoop down & keep her business from going out of business, or at least, make some heroic movement while she was undergoing such pain, and maybe in the process redeem his own public image & then it would have had more heroic proportions--that's what I would have expected in real life, not just keeping quiet about it for any reason (hard to forgive retroactively, as well) and the fact that it didn't fit the time-line/plot for him to do that made him a little macho male: it's all right to put a woman out of business (that doesn't matter so much to her; it was always a sentimental reason for her to have the business), especially when you know you will be giving her what every woman really wants instead of business, a true love. The fact that she reasserted her goal as one to write was a weak concession to the woman as having a strong professional need.....and was too matter of fact, like, if she didn't have that little epiphany, she could have just stayed happy in the kitchen.
How to rework it? I dunno, that energy has to go to my 3 WIP's.
joanna mckethan

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's a really good point, Joanna. I think that MOST people who see the movie expect Tom to have a change of heart and rescue the bookshop, or at least figure out some way of coexistence. I bet the studio thought that was just too predictable - but it sets us all up for a big disappointment that clearly most people don't get past.

Or maybe the filmmakers thought that just wasn't reality. It might not be CORPORATE reality, but it's HUMAN reality.

Xandria Lea said...

The first time I watched the movie the final climax was always awkward. The music wasn't really appropriate and the last line was cheesy, almost as if she sort of knew it was him.
I'm not an author, but to me it would have been a stronger ending if, instead of meeting him there, she writes a note and leaves it on a bench apologizing, much in the way Tom Hank's character did when he came as Joe Fox instead of NY152. It seems like she should have fallen for him instead of chasing after the fellow, who, in the second movie, starts to separate himself from her.

How he tries to avoid telling her things didn't ever seem to bother her. I understand that she was in lurv with him, but she doesn't know him.

Also, a big reason the movies seemed like two different movies sort of crammed together wasn't just the writing style. The scenes progressed differently and the color palettes changed. The scenes were more light and fluffy when compared to the heavier scenes prior.

I didn't see their relationship as a problem really. Yeah, it was an emotional investment in someone besides their lover, but it started as a friendship probably and it's difficult to distinguish at some points what is more than a friendship. Meg's character tried to hide how much she used the computer from her lover because of his disdain of them. Joe didn't have to hide it from his lover because she was rushed around and never over at his place. They never really showed the characters on dates. I will say that I'm exhausted from the main characters having an easy exit such as Kathleen's boyfriend having a thing for someone else.

The movie had amazingly romantic lines. When Joe utters "for as long as we both shall live" or when he says that if she looked "half as decent as a mailbox" that he would go head over feet to marry her.

I am a fan of the one two punch, I like seeing the characters develop. The only development of tom's character is that he realized he made a lady go bankrupt and that doesn't want to be like his parents. No real emotions, though. You never see him sad and, like previous posters mention, he doesn't have anything negative happen to him even though he did act like a jerk.
With Kathleen, she had the better character story.

I think the idea of the tale is that they are both equal. However, the control that Tom has leads me to question this. It's tough to balance multiple main characters while developing both simultaneously.

Overall, though, I still love this movie. As with Sleepless in Seattle, the movie nods to it's predecessor.

Sorry, this is a bit long-winded >.>

Maibaap said...

Interesting to see this blog, since only recently I saw the film and went through the screenplay with my writing partner.

I agree - to me the protagonist is Hanks, though in another way the central character is Ryan. He is the one driving the action; he is the one with the crucial reveal on who the online mate is, while she is kept in the dark. Critically, in the last Act it's Hanks who is the 'active' dude.

The ending does seem somewhat abrupt - him landing at her pad and...just by yapping-around he is 'sold' to her. It of course helps to show a good deal of interaction before so once two folks come together it's somewhat taken for granted.

Another point I relate to - we are not 'shown' Hanks - we are not made to feel with him. Simply, since there are not enough moments - he is made to go in and out of scenes...get in - play cute - get out.

I think this story also plays majorly on the 'talent' attached - Hanks being Hanks, though of course he has shown awesome versatility, but Ryan is surely Ryan. A la 'When Harry Met Sally'.

What do you make of that film? Who is the protagonist? Both? If so, then are they going for the same thing - in a way, 'dual protagonists' would do? Or even in this case, subtly, the 'driver', the main protagonist could be Billy Crystal?

I realize it's an old post of yours. Hopefully you shall opine :-)