Why You’ve Got Mail is still the best romantic comedy ever made

Posted by
Hannah-Rose Yee

20 years since it first premiered, the movie has more than stood the test of time.

There’s a scene in You’ve Got Mail that so perfectly distils the particular magic of watching a romantic comedy that it’s a miracle to me that anyone ever made another one.

Joe ‘F.O.X’ Fox (Tom Hanks) and his father Nelson (Dabney Coleman) are on a boat, both having recently had their relationships fall spectacularly apart and, after evacuating their Upper West Side classic sixes are living an in-between life afloat on the family vessel. (Like all of writer-director Nora Ephron’s films, this is a movie about rich white people. You’re either on board or you’re not.) Joe has just broken up with Patricia, who makes coffee nervous, after the elevator to their apartment broke down and he was confronted with the reality of her selfishness. Nelson’s wife Gillian has just run off with Nanny Maureen.

Father and son ruminate on their newfound single status. “I just have to meet someone new, that’s all,” Nelson tells his son. “That’s the easy part.”

Joe scoffs a very Tom Hanksian scoff. “Oh right, yeah, a snap to find the one single person in the world who fills your heart with joy.”

“Well don’t be ridiculous,” Nelson replies. “Have I ever been with anyone who fit that description? Have you?” 

Joe’s focus immediately sharpens, and the strains of Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered kicks in alongside footage of Joe striding purposefully down a brownstone-lined Upper West Side street, brandishing a bouquet of flowers. 

An hour and a half into You’ve Got Mail and Joe has just realised what we’ve known all along: He does know someone who fits that description. He does have someone in his life who fills his heart with joy. And that person is Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), his business antagonist and unwitting partner in chat room hijinks. Love is in the air! 

It’s not the most memorable scene in the movie. That award goes to the first confrontation between Kathleen and Joe at the drinks party, a verbal sparring match in which Kathleen yells the iconic line “that caviar is a garnish!” But what this scene, and in particular the writing of Nora and her sister and frequent collaborator Delia, does is encapsulate the dizzying, fizzy, champagne bubble a-ha moment when you realise you’ve fallen in love.

You’ve Got Mail is 20 years old today and it looks it. The movie quite literally could not exist if it was made today, so reliant is it on janky, outdated technology and the conceit that if you met someone called NY152 in a singles chatroom they would, inevitably, turn out to be the lovely Tom Hanks and not someone who would send you dick pics and “U Up?” text messages at three in the morning. 

Has a rom com ever been this good?

Not only that, but the movie features just two people of colour: Dave Chapelle as Joe’s wise-cracking best friend and a young Sara Ramirez as Rose, a cash-only check-out assistant who initially refuses to serve Kathleen and her credit card until Joe chivalrously steps in and charms her with some bad jokes. All this before we even address the fact that Joe and Kathleen’s essential tug-of-war involves the fact they run competing bookshops. (Bookshops! Man this movie has aged.)

I don’t care. Every problem with this movie slides over it, like water off a Riverside Park duck’s back. Because in amongst all the inconsistencies and inaccuracies is the fact that it distils something very real about love.

You’ve Got Mail’s vision of love isn’t based on looks or anything purely physical. It’s about a connection, mind to mind, between two people. 

In the film this connection happens largely behind a computer screen, mirroring in some ways how we’re all starting to connect on dating apps. Joe’s words about his dog Brinkley, or about the flour clouds outside his apartment, and Kathleen’s words about butterflies on the subway and bouquets of sharpened pencils are enough to cause the pair to grin like schoolgirls at their computers, anxiously refreshing their email accounts to see if they have mail. It’s blushing and swoony and golden syrupy, leaking romance left right and centre.

You’ve got mail! 

“When you’re already in love, the only place you ever fall in love again is the movies,” Delia Ephron, Nora’s sister and collaborator on You’ve Got Mail, once said.

They’re right, the Sisters Ephron, but I would go one step further. You also fall in love at the movies even, maybe especially, if you’re not in love. Because films like You’ve Got Mail are a reminder of believing not only in the idea of falling in love, but in the very possibility of it in the first place. It’s like Kathleen says, when her ex boyfriend asks her if there’s somebody new in her life: “There is the dream of someone else.” 

You’ve Got Mail, like all the great romantic comedies, is about the possibility that anyone, anywhere – even the man who put you out of business – might be that one single person in the world who fills your heart with joy. Time for a rewatch, I think. 

Images: Getty


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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.

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