The film's central concept is simple enough. Thirtysomethings Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) both work in the book business and both feel that there is something missing from their long term relationships with other people (Greg Kinnear for her, Parker Posey for him). The film opens in media res with what has clearly become a daily routine over the past few weeks of Kathleen and Joe covertly sending friendly and flirty emails to each other after their respective partners have left for work. From the opening scene, the audience discovers that Joe's 'NY152' and Kathleen's 'Shopgirl' 'met' in an online chatroom some weeks prior, and that up to this point neither knows the other's real life name or identity, both acknowledging that they have so far been careful not to reveal personal details (although it is not clear why this is). What is clear is that they have started to form an emotional attachment.
Kathleen runs a small independent children's bookshop that her mother left her and has a large following of regular customers, while Joe co-runs his family's business 'Fox Books', a large US-wide chain of bookstores. Joe is about to open a large 'Fox Books' store round the corner from Kathleen's bookshop, threatening its survival. Joe also happens to meet Kathleen by accident when he visits her shop with his young relatives and is charmed by her, although he is careful to conceal who he really is, while Kathleen also feels a spark for him. She later learns his true identity when they bump into each other at a party and any initial attraction they felt goes out of the window as the two begin to bicker as Kathleen begins to realise the potential threat that Joe's big conglomerate poses, while Joe belittles and demeans her. And so forms the pattern of their relationship during the film as they continue to clash in real life while their online relationship goes from strength to strength as each remains ignorant of the other's identity.
The first time I watched this, I found it frustrating that Kathleen could be so naïve and know so little about her business so as not to realise at first just what a big a risk the 'Fox Books' store poses to her. Her naivety is meant to be part of her charm and what contrasts her with Parker Posey's more ruthless and cut-throat Patricia but it doesn't even occur to her to start to look around for new premises. If she'd acted more quickly – or even at all – she could have just been looking at relocation rather than closing.
I found it equally frustrating that after finding out that Kathleen and 'Shopgirl' are one and the same, Joe doesn't reveal himself to her straightaway (although having now seen the film a few more times I don't think Kathleen would have run straight into his arms). Even so, the whole last half hour of the film as Joe works to befriend Kathleen before the 'big reveal' was too drawn out.
'You've Got Mail' is an undemanding film that follows the rom-com formula almost to the letter and while it won't win any prizes for originality (both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could play these roles backwards), there's enough sparkle between the two leads to make this worth a watch and maybe the odd repeat viewing if it's on TV.