The romantic comedy, when done well, is the kind of effortless entertainment that feeds Hollywood’s reputation as a place where dreams come true. The genre first came into its own during the 1930s — the era of Ernst Lubitsch — and, arguably, it hasn’t reached the same heights since. But every once in a while a movie will show the good sense to try and rediscover the classic Hollywood magic, adapting the old sensibility to a world that doesn’t seem to be nearly as charming or sophisticated as it used to be. Thus Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, set in Budapest between the world wars (like the Miklós László play on which it was based), was transplanted to Seinfeld-era New York in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. These pen pal romances are rich in dramatic irony and wit, placing their love stories in the context of the trials and satisfactions of retail.
Both films take a rather unlikely coincidence as their starting point and go on from there. A man and a woman anonymously exchange love letters (with pen and paper in The Shop Around the Corner and with e-mails in You’ve Got Mail). At the same time, they unwittingly meet in person and become bitter rivals in their working lives. Love and hate grow in parallel fashion, until the truth is discovered and the cognitive dissonance is resolved. Each film has the man learning the woman’s identity while the woman is kept in the dark until the end. This leads to a little psychological gamesmanship on the man’s part as he reconciles his own feelings and tries to make the revelation less of a shock for the woman he loves. This is a novel and delightful twist on the usual romantic comedy squabbles. In these worlds, work is a performance, a persona. The true self is laid bare through the liberating intimacy of writing.
Conventional wisdom (and expert consensus, while we’re at it) considers the “original” to be vastly superior to the “remake” in this case. But I can’t dismiss You’ve Got Mail, a favorite in my family for many years and a movie that I still find exceptionally funny and sweet. Its flaws are impossible to hide; they’re right there in the title. Yes, it’s mercenary. Yes, it’s dated. Most movies about the internet from the 90s now look like they came from a much more distant, more psychotic past. (Reminder: dial-up connections were something we all used to put ourselves through.) You’ve Got Mail was of the moment, and technology obliterated that moment very quickly. Still, both dating websites and social networks can be seen as extensions of the online relationships depicted here. So the movie was actually prescient, if a little optimistic in its portrayal of online correspondence as consistently mature and cautious.
The two films’ differing approaches come out most clearly in the pivotal scene, wherein the man learns that the woman he thought he hated is the same person who wrote all those beautiful letters. Visually, and in terms of a few crucial snatches of dialogue, the movies are nearly identical at this point. But the context is very different. In The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart’s character comes to this scene after a disastrously bad day. He just got fired. His boss thinks he’s been having an affair with the boss’s wife. In a matter of months, Margaret Sullavan’s character seems poised to inherit the position he took years to attain. So when he sees Sullavan in the café, it’s just too much for him. When he sits down next to her but doesn’t tell her the truth, he’s bitterly trying to pull both their heads out of the clouds. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks’ character is the scion of a big-box bookstore that threatens the existence of Meg Ryan’s small shop. Everything is going his way, at least professionally. The only reason he doesn’t like her, or thinks about her at all, is that she makes him feel like a bully. He’s defensive about his business, its economic and cultural value. So his decision to mislead Ryan, although he projects anger toward her, seems to be more about his own embarrassment. The scene turns its focus to Ryan and her anger, which she is finally able to articulate but immediately recoils from afterwards. The stakes may be lower, but I think the balance of character development may actually be stronger in You’ve Got Mail.
That said, The Shop Around the Corner stands far above the crowd for its structural audacity, its surprising blend of sharp but benevolent humor with quiet notes of sadness and regret. Old-world elegance collides with the fury and dangers of modernity. Almost the entire film takes place in the titular shop, making this a Christmas movie that emphasizes the work necessary to make the celebrations come together. Not a single moment in the film is spent watching one of the two main characters composing a letter, unlike You’ve Got Mail, which is filled with voiceover narration of the lovers’ immaculate prose. Instead, the characters recite short passages from letters they’ve received and leave the rest to our imaginations. In a sense, this makes the film’s resolution a little more suspenseful, although the main question in both movies is whether the woman will resent the man’s misleading her or take a “better the devil you know” stance.
The battle of the sexes rages on — from the line, “We hate to admit we’re wrong; that’s why we’re so feminine,” to a truck commercial from 2001. (Do you know the one I’m talking about? Did you ever see that one?) Romantic comedies, whether they’re disparaged as “women’s pictures” or “chick flicks,” have always been part of this battle, even as they represent a way to bring men and women together. These two films encapsulate that contradiction. Love can be a matter of seeing the best in a person and overlooking those conflicts that infect every relationship anyone’s ever had. Or, if you got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, maybe love is about lying: selling an idealized version of yourself over the safe distance of the written word and ignoring all the red flags from face-to-face interactions. Either way, there’s going to be poetry, and there’s going to be meanness. We can’t seem to live together without both.