Kathleen Kelly runs a traditional bookstore where she tells stories to children. It's a place with warmth and soul... everything Joe Fox seems to lack, or at least the places he run.
Fox has the right name since he is a practical businessman running a chain of book mega-stores a la Starbucks Coffee. Both stores are located at the opposite sides of the same Manhattan street. They're business rivals and by an ironic twist of virtual fate, they're also nighttime regular chatters on America On Line aka AOL. She'sShopgirl, he's NY152, she's played by Meg Ryan and he's played by Tom Hanks. In fact, the film could have been titled "Sleepless at Manhattan" as well.
Now, I have a hard time buying Tom Hanks as a despicable character, or even remotely unlikable, but that's the whole point of that savory little romantic comedy, signed (written and directed) by the late Nora Ephron, you only feel guilty when you hurt people you have deep connections with. And the irony is that Internet sometimes creates deeper connections with virtual people than the one who share your life. The eagerness to check the mails to see if you've got one is still relevant today and epitomizes what we call now: an emotional affair.
The film was clearly made on that cusp of the first Internet years (you know with that the awful tone when you dial on the net) and the social network hegemony we live in but it doesn't out-date it for all that. Yes, we're blasé because we know if Skype or iPhones existed, there would be no plot. But 1998 was the perfect moment to make this film, and now, it looks as a sweet reminder of how Internet used to work. It's to Ephron's credit to have exploited her witty sense of humor and sensitivity to explore a modern device most people her generation would feel estranged with.
The 'e-motional affair' might provide the timeless appeal the film needs as the rest is just a succession of plot points leading to the inevitable declaration of love. We know Joe and Kathleen will get rid of their respective life partners, a self-centered workaholic played by Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey as a pompous socialite who wouldn't even be admitted in the "Sex and the City" clique. But the film is never as good as when the two interact behind the screens, and seem to spend the whole day on social trivialities, only to check at night if they've got mail. That felt real although I wish the portrayal of their real-life partners didn't make it so obvious they had no future together. The film could have been a subtler comment on the way people look for complementary romances on line, not plain new relationships.
However, Ephron's approach to the Net is often spot-on. During the memorable chat part, there's a moment where Joe Fox is anticipating the right answer and he's just happy when he gets it, because it allows him to move forward in his courtship. OR when he tries to send the right words and wait a little before clicking on Enter. It shows that the Net was really a game-changer as far as social interactions went. In real life, you must be careful about what you say and you have no second chance. This is why they're natural born talkers behind screens but all their real-life encounters are disasters. This is why on-screen relationships seem to work better and provide the illusion that our real life sucks.
The virtual exchanges also highlight an important aspect of the Internet, it has revealed the inner loneliness of people, some who never realized they were alone until they could find a person to speak with. Internet offers something called anonymousness, allowing people to speak more openly about their personal troubles, their insecurities and doubts. That's everything we seek in the intimacy of the Internet, catharsis and somewhat of an escapism, escapism in emotions or on a more existential level. And just the opportunity to talk about the things we loved.
Whether Kathleen recommending to read "Pride and Prejudice" novel or Fox talking about "The Godfather", the Net becomes the area of free expression for our real selves, and this is how Hanks is never unlikable, he becomes himself behind the Net and there's an interesting twist in the way he talks Kathleen into doing things she wouldn't do usually but that end up being backfiring at him. This aspect of the story takes a subtle turn when he finally realizes who she is and maintains the virtual relationship. Then it gets more one-sided, making the ending questionable.
Indeed, should have Kathleen fallen in love with the man who ruined her business? Joe wasn't mean spirited enough not to deserve Kathleen and from what it seems, the bookstore was a bit more of a burden than a precious asset. Now, maybe I have not a problem with the ending except for the fact that it happens too late, how about seeing how two people behave on the Net and see them interact in real life as lovers. The film missed many good points about the Internet and the battle between reality and virtuality, that's why the ending seems a bit forced.
But the charm of the first exchanges and the acting save the film, it's perhaps one of the last performances where Meg Ryan still look like a sweetheart and Tom Hanks can have a lighthearted role after having played it so serious. The film is a nice time capsule of what was the Internet in the late 90's. Another nostalgic value to add, reminding us that 1998 will soon be 20.