by Georgie Riggs, arts and entertainment editor
Anything touched by Nora Ephron should be considered a holiday classic. So what’s better than a film written and directed by Ephron, starting in New York City in the fall and ending in New York City in the spring, for Christmas time?
Starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, “You’ve Got Mail” contains the essence of a perfect yuletide film. Sure, the focus is less on Christmas specifically and more on romance and capitalism. And yes, while it’s essentially a remake of a fantastic Christmas movie from 1940 — Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” — the film widens the timeline and modernizes the central themes. Even with the slightly diverging themes, I’m here to argue that the best Christmas movie is “You’ve Got Mail.”
The film follows Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan, the owner of an independent children’s bookstore in New York. The Barnes & Noble-like corporate behemoth Fox Books moves in down the street, lead by third-generation capitalist Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks. This threatens not only Kelly’s business but also her sense of purpose in the community. At the same time, she engages in an ongoing AOL chat relationship with a man even though she is in a committed relationship to her luddite, newspaper columnist boyfriend, played by Greg Kinnear, who is too busy waxing poetically on the values of typewriters to notice her secret digital rendezvous.
Little does Kathleen know, the same capitalist villain ripping apart her hopes and dreams is the man in her AOL inbox chatting her up about “The Godfather” and reading her soliloquies on “Pride and Prejudice.” Tom Hanks is at his Jimmy Stewart best as Joe Fox, somehow representing everything bad with Starbucks-era New York while at the same time making the viewer fall under his charm.
The core of the film’s humor comes from this ironic relationship where the viewer knows that the antagonist is also the love interest. But the film doesn’t sell out to Big Book. Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, but without his character’s obvious love and affection for Meg Ryan, he would remain an antagonist, despite being played by Tom Hanks. The heart of “You’ve Got Mail” truly lies in Meg Ryan’s endless charm, which is perfectly paired with Ephron’s humor and style.
Ephron films contain all the best parts of the holiday season within them. From Billy Crystal’s chunky knit sweaters in “When Harry Met Sally” to Meg Ryan driving home singing Christmas carols to herself in “Sleepless in Seattle,” Ephron has a knack for creating cinematic moments around Christmas.
Even beyond Christmas scenes, Ephron’s sense of humor and portrayals of romance create a general warmth that perfectly fits the holidays. “You’ve Got Mail” tackles the themes of finding true love, pursuing what you love to do and discovering your true self in typical Ephron fashion, making comments that are both wry and earnest at once.
Visually, the film also presents an image of New York City in the colder months that’s so sparkling it could be served in glassware at a holiday party. The opening sequence, set to The Cranberries’ song “Dreams,” sets the viewer squarely in Kathleen and Nora’s optimistic shared view of New York. I’ve never been there and I’m sure the real version is much less glowing than Ephron’s, but for me, there’s nothing more Christmassy than fictional New York City.
I love many Christmas movies. I will defend “Love Actually” unironically as a great film and I think Emma Thompson’s scene crying in her bedroom to Joni Mitchell created cinema. Films like “While You Were Sleeping,” “Carol” and “Metropolitan,” concentrate their non-holiday stories around Christmas, making perfect seasonal watches.
But “You’ve Got Mail” brings the combination of love and capitalism year-round. After all, what’s more Christmas than falling in love with capitalism itself?