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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