‘You’ve Got Mail’ Was the Last Great New York Rom-Com

Twenty-five years ago next week and two years before it would merge with AOL, Warner Brothers released “You’ve Got Mail.” Starring Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks and the Upper West Side, the movie grossed more than $250 million. And if you are the kind of woman who leans into Jane Austen, finely woven cardigans, farmers’ market flowers, impeccable grammar, the ’90s, book-filled prewar apartments and the primacy of small, independent businesses, then your relationship to the film may be ritualistic — even devotional.

It has been this way for me, since the beginning, long before I could stream it at whim.

When I try to think of a better romantic comedy that has been made since, in which New York is so central to the narrative — one that is bigger, more literate, more iconic or truer to the lives of a certain class of people who live here — I cannot come up with one. Based on “The Shop Around the Corner,’’ Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 epistolary love story set in Budapest, “You’ve Got Mail” gives us two people anonymously falling for each other online in the benighted era of dial-up. In 1998, their means of engagement was modern, but their connection, built on words, on clever turns of phrase, on funny observations about the world around them, was distinctly pre-tech, beholden to the tropes of classic romantic comedies of the ’30s. No matter what would happen a decade and a half down the line — the crafty packaging required of anyone venturing onto Bumble or Tinder — content, in the sincerest expression of the term, was always going to be the only currency that mattered, the self over self-presentation.

The world of “You’ve Got Mail’’ is marked by a highly sophisticated provincialism that has always and forever distinguished much of life in New York. Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) and Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) don’t ever seem to go below Broadway and 72nd Street or above Riverside and 111th. They are meant for each other in part because neither would really see the value of bothering.

Despite the intimacy of this geography, for much of the movie, the two email back and forth without knowing essential biographical details about each other. Kathleen is the second-generation owner of a beloved children’s bookstore called Shop Around the Corner. Joe — who will eventually force her out of business — is the dynastic overseer of a chain like Barnes & Noble, which during the late 1990s became a receptacle for a lot of the disgust that New Yorkers felt toward a city on the cusp of major transformation. As Kathleen puts it when her store finally shuts down, “It will become something depressing. Like a Baby Gap.”

Given the backdrop — book selling — and the current habit of lamenting the New York of right now in favor of the New York before Michael Bloomberg, the movie teases us today with the prospect of mourning.

A walking tour that begins next week to commemorate the movie’s anniversary promises the chance to take a picture outside of Cafe Lalo, where Joe stands Kathleen up for what is meant to be their first meeting. Fittingly, Cafe Lalo has been closed since the pandemic. The brownstone where Kathleen lives in a cozy floor-through remains. It is also a stop on the tour; last sold in the early 1990s for $700,000, it is now valued by Redfin at $8.7 million.

But for all the escalation and precarity that has attached to life in the city, no one would have predicted in 1998 that we would be rooting for Barnes & Noble a quarter-century later — that there were, in the distance, other scarier retail adversaries that could bring you “Mansfield Park’’ or a leaf blower in a day. Independent book stores have had a renaissance in New York, and across the country, over the past few years. The branch of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn Heights is almost always packed. After closing locations for years, Barnes & Noble opened 30 or so new stores over the past 12 months, leading Fast Company to write that “one of the great cultural villains of the big-box retail heyday is now an underdog hero, making a welcome comeback as a symbol of the true love of books.”

You could argue, of course, that the movie’s feminism is dubious, despite Nora Ephron’s direction. But here, too, I would come at you like a puffer fish. Kathleen spends some of the film worrying that her life is “small,’’ that maybe she ought to challenge herself by doing something other than running her dead mother’s store. By the end she is, having found a new life as a writer.

There would be other great romantic comedies in the years that followed, some from Nancy Meyers, who took command of the genre that Ephron had dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, making popular, big-budget movies about well-off cosmopolitan people finding happiness. Now, though, the people seemed a lot richer. The cashmere was thicker ply. The three-way no longer happened among two smart, quick-witted people and a big messy city but rather among two smart, quick-witted people and high-end, single-family real-estate holdings, typically near the ocean. The women had moved on from small apartments with cabbage-rose printed sofas to big houses that have inspired thousands of Pinterest boards.

If Ephron’s movies made a religion out of walking around Manhattan, private space was now prized over public. No one was falling in love within the democratizing parameters of the virtual world or Riverside Park. The setting had shifted to the famously designed modern-farmhouse interiors of places in the Hamptons and Santa Barbara. All that Diane Keaton’s playwright Erica Barry has to do in “Something’s Gotta Give’’ to meet her destiny is show up on the first floor of her shingle-style beach house where she finds a 63-year-old record executive her daughter has brought home for the weekend. That your soul mate might simply emerge from your own fantastically enviable domestic surroundings, as if the salad dressing conjured from the herbs in your garden, is the underlying notion of “It’s Complicated,” in which Meryl Streep plays a wealthy baker who ensures a lifetime of good taste by falling in love with her architect.

“You’ve Got Mail’’ is in one obvious sense a movie about the power of corporations — AOL itself, as the means of communication, is so central to the story line that the whole premise can feel like a come-on from the team in mergers and acquisitions. Big business wins. But it also a movie in which sense of place matters over surface, in which modesty stands above grandeur — in which, in the end, love means never having to say, “Let’s renovate the kitchen.”

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