A still from The Shop Around the Corner, 1940.
“That’s it!” someone exclaimed to her friend. “That’s the place where they meet!” She was standing in front of an Upper West Side coffee shop that figures in a pivotal scene in the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail. They snapped a picture, they went in; I guess it was their destination. It takes all kinds, of course, and New York is all about finding your own city within a city. Hadn’t I passed a Friends bus tour in the West Village the week before?
I’ve always really disliked You’ve Got Mail, without being sure why. It’s not just that it’s twee and treacly, or feels dated. It’s not merely that it’s such a pale shadow of The Shop Around the Corner, the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch classic to which it is an ostensible homage. I remember seeing You’ve Got Mail when it came out and stalking out of the theater afterward, surrounded by my bemused high school friends, obscurely convinced that the filmmakers did not understand love. What I knew from love is unclear—I had never had anything resembling a relationship—but it’s certainly true that something about the film got under my skin. And now I begin to see that this something was, and is, about loneliness.
Like The Shop Around the Corner, the Nora Ephron rom-com centers around a pair of correspondents who fall, anonymously, in love—via letter, and, in the 1998 version, over AOL—but who hate each other in their real lives. And of course, the point is, the letters are their “real” lives.
In You’ve Got Mail, although the characters are ostensibly literary, the subject doesn’t come up too much in their cute, fast-paced, IM bonding. This is itself a departure from the original source material, albeit a natural one. The characters in The Shop Around the Corner (itself adapted from the Hungarian play Parfumerie) bond over classical music and, especially, Russian literature rather than snappy repartee. But even this is not the point.
In You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks character is a big-box bookstore magnate driving Meg Ryan’s Upper West Side indie bookseller out of business. (Yes, I know: how quaint.) He is much richer than she, and her business is imperiled, but neither character is poor—and, critically, neither works for anyone else. Both have self-absorbed romantic partners who are easily discarded so that the leads can get together.
The Shop Around the Corner is a paean to loneliness: its sadness, yes, but also its power and its possibility. These characters are not bored urbanites who, with love at home, have idly logged on and fallen into flirtations. They are solitary young people who have deliberately set out to meet someone via a lonely hearts club, and find an escape from the grind of their jobs—in a perfumery in Miklós László’s original play, a luggage store in the Lubitsch film. Their lives are not their jobs; they are doing dull work for bosses, and probably always will. This is not a source of discontent; they find satisfaction in music and books, and as such, the epistolary romance is for these characters a lifeline. A couple of yuppies emotionally cheating on their partners just doesn’t have the same power.
Now, Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan were hardly everyman, and the 1940 Budapest portrayed on the sound stage is remarkably free of any geopolitical strife. But The Shop Around the Corner is realistic about the high stakes of loneliness. Is there a contemporary mainstream romance in which the characters don’t have the possibility of increased material success, and where the risk of being alone is considered dramatic tension in itself? And even when the characters are content with love, it is not exactly the end, in and of itself, that we have come to expect of modern movies. What these characters are looking for is companionship: people to share tastes and opinions with—an alternative to living, and being, alone.
The film is good because it is about risk: true risk, emotional risk. And the difficulty of exchanging the ideal for the real. Here is what Alfred Kralik, played by James Stewart, says in The Shop Around the Corner: “The boss hands you the envelope. You wonder how much is in it, and you don’t want to open it. As long as the envelope’s closed, you’re a millionaire.”
Fantasy has its place. The people who go to that café have their own kind—and that’s as real as anything. Besides, at the end of the day, that kind of romance is helping to support a small business, filled with actual people.
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