“I could never be with someone who has a boat,” and other wisdom from Nora Ephron

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I’ve always been a nostalgic person. History and memories. Anything pertaining to the concept of “yesteryear” or “yore.” Photo albums. “Remember that time…?”

You get the idea.

Lately, the nostalgia seems to exist at a finer point. I suppose the reason has something to do with age, with this next decade of life moving me towards something new. With each phase, I look back on the past with new perspective. “A function of the human condition,” I think, is an accurate description of this phenomenon.

How I experience this with movies has always been different; where the cycles of life run long, my experiencing the art of film has always evolved quickly.

My feelings on some movies will never change. I’m pretty confident that I will always love certain films in exactly the same way with exactly the same love that I did when I first watched them. St. Elmo’s Fire. Meet Me in St. Louis. Rear Window. How to Marry a Millionaire. Victor/Victoria. Close Encounters. The Matrix. Singles. 10 Things I Hate About You. Interstellar. Birdman. Moonlight. E.T. It’s a Wonderful Life.

But for most movies, my perception is fluid. A movie I loved at first watch might not do much for me now, and vice versa. Some movies I love and then hate and then love again. Some movies that I feel “meh” about initially might inspire joy upon a later viewing. Desperately Seeking Susan actually gets better every time I watch it, and I loved it from the first watch.

I was thinking about this recently while watching You’ve Got Mail. It’s a film that’s oddly polarizing, despite the fun rom-com quality. Some people love it, and some people hate it. Mindy Kahling, for example, loves it so much that she’s written about it in her books, discussed it in articles, tweeted about it, and used its themes in her TV show. Her friends threw her a You’ve Got Mail-themed holiday party last year. I’m with you on this one, Mindy: You’ve Got Mail FTW. But I’ve only come back around to loving it again in the past few years.

My first viewing of You’ve Got Mail was with my friend Claire in a theater in Pennsylvania in late 1998. E-mail was still a novel concept. Only a year earlier, I received my very first brand-new, shiny, and untarnished e-mail addresses (I still have my Hotmail account because, you know, nostalgia.) We were all still getting those AOL discs in the mail. It was exciting. It’s perhaps a trite way to boil it down, but the idea of sending a letter or a note or a message in real-time was cool in 1998. It was modern. It was hip and happening. Before it evolved into the stressful, overwhelming, occasionally nausea-inducing form of communication that it is, e-mail was fun.

Nora Ephron, who wrote and directed the film, was undeniably gifted at tapping into underlying social and cultural guts of America. When discussing her work, a lot of attention is paid to her rom-coms. But in that focus, a superficial layer is added to her career that’s unfair to her incredible body of work. Her background as a writer was in journalism and activism, after all. She had a degree in political science. Her first job was as an intern at the White House. When she couldn’t get a writing job at Newsweek because she was a woman, she participated in a class-action lawsuit against the magazine and then wrote a book about it. She wrote blistering satire. She had no fear. She was far more than “just” a writer of rom-coms. And what she created in rom-coms held deeper anyway. You’ve Got Mail was no exception.

In the late 90s, everyone was convinced that Y2K was bringing the kind of apocalypse that would have us all standing in bread lines or fighting our neighbors for potatoes. Needless to say, it was a time of change, both anticipated and immediate. Nora Ephron was one of those writers who could nail down an issue and write it to precise clarity, and You’ve Got Mail was the perfect backdrop for this exposition. It wasn’t just about technology, although that was certainly a central theme. It was also about the evolving landscape of dating, academia, writing, corporate America, and the changing values of Americans at the time. Loosely using the construct of the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch film, The Shop Around the Corner, Nora Ephron wove the dialogue with both feel-good ease and subtle discomfort. It’s a movie about change in every single frame.

But Karen! (you might be saying). Joe Fox was such a jerk in that movie!

Sure he was. Or was he?

Aaron probably said it best when he stated “I didn’t like it the first time I saw it. Mostly because it was jarring seeing Hanks play such a douche.”

The brilliance of You’ve Got Mail in a nutshell. Tom Hanks playing a little moral ambiguity hit the mark. It caused discomfort. Enough so that as a viewer, you might spend the entirety of the film wondering why you like Joe Fox so much. Is it because Tom Hanks is playing the character, or is it because the character is written so well? Or is it because he has delightful chemistry with Meg Ryan, who expresses so expertly the part of us who looks back nostalgically on the time when things were “better” while understanding that change is inevitable? Ultimately, you like him because he’s really not a douche at all.

You’ve Got Mail is rounded out with a crackerjack cast, that includes the likes of Jean Stapleton, Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn, Dabney Coleman, and Dave Chappelle, written into a terrific supporting cast of lovable, oddball characters. This is where the rom-com part of the movie really works. I’d like to hang out with them at the book store, on the streets of NYC, at the café, in the apartment, on the boat. And isn’t that just what we look for in this type of film? A group of characters to love and revisit from time to time, playing out a story with a satisfying, heart-warming conclusion? It is in my book.

If you don’t agree with me, send me an e-mail.

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