I Said What I Said

25 Years Ago, You’ve Got Mail Got Meg Ryan’s Ending All Wrong

This movie is not rom-com canon, I'm sorry.

In news that might make your bones crumble into dust, You’ve Got Mail is turning 25. And while the Nora Ephron rom-com has far outlasted AOL chatrooms and dial-up internet (thankfully!), I’m here to make the case that the “rom” here should’ve also gone by the way of CD-ROMs. Because Tom Hanks’ character didn’t deserve Meg Ryan’s character, and I hate the way this beloved movie ended.

*Cracks knuckles* OK, before you throw digital pitchforks my way, hear me out: The fact that millionaire bookseller Joe Fox is so unlikeable is a testament to Hanks’ flawless portrayal, truly the complete antithesis of what we know the actor to be like IRL. He’s so smug and obnoxious, in fact, that it made me stabby to see Kathleen Kelly fall for him even after he spends months destroying her business, lying to her, and generally being a complete d*ckhead.

The TL;DR Here

This movie would’ve been 100% better if Kathleen ended up alone in the end. Watching her end up with Joe Fox actually made me want to throw my remote at the screen.

I know it sounds blasphemous. The late great Ephron truly was a master of her craft. And You’ve Got Mail captures the late ‘90s so perfectly; it scratches the nostalgia itch for a simpler time like few other movies can. But if this movie were made today, I’d hope we wouldn’t have our charming leading lady end up with a complete incel.

Allow me to set the scene here. First, the movie opens with our lead characters narrowly missing each other as they walk down the same New York City streets on a beautiful fall day. Kathleen bounces out of her brownstone, stops at Starbucks, and then picks up a pumpkin, unknowingly dodging Joe and his shiny briefcase. As “Dreams” by The Cranberries (my top-played song of 2023, according to Spotify) plays, Kathleen, in voiceover form, tells us that she waits impatiently for mail (“e-mail”) from Joe.

We find out that Kathleen inherited The Shop Around the Corner, a cozy children’s bookstore, from her late mom. Joe is opening up his eponymous chain bookstore, Fox Books, on the same block, inevitably forcing Kathleen to shutter her family business. Though we’ve long traded chatrooms for ChatGPT, the film’s theme remains pretty spot-on, especially given the way a certain omnipresent online retailer has tried to corner the market on book sales over the past 25 years.

Of course, if the movie had been made even a few years later, the Borders-esque Fox Books would have also fallen victim to Jeff Bezos’ worldwide domination, putting both Kathleen and Joe on an equally lousy playing field. (Stepping on my soapbox to say: Please support local booksellers and libraries whenever you can. K, thanks!)

“Everyone has been doing e-mails”: Britney Jean Spears, 1999

Essentially, Kathleen and Joe embark on a cyberromance in which both are having emotional affairs on their respective partners, played by Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey. Before “conscious uncouplings” and “entanglements,” Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly were falling in love over IMs, well before DMs even existed.

And while Kathleen and her well-meaning but irritating boyfriend Frank have the most chill, respectful mutual breakup, Joe spends about 1:55 of the film’s two-hour run time emotionally manipulating Kathleen.

He lies to her about being the owner of Fox Books, and then pretends he’s not her online paramour by standing her up on their first blind date… even though he’s not really standing her up because he shows up just to antagonize her. Then, when she fires back, he acts all bent out of shape and calls her “a real bitch” to his friend later on. He beams with joy over the closure of an independent bookstore but immediately goes to Starbucks for coffee and makes fun of other people’s orders. He uses the term “fatty.” This man is truly the worst.

Kathleen Kelly and her unfailing optimism deserved better than Joe Fox. Even Frank — who used typewriters because he thought computers were marking the end of Western civilization (was he wrong?) — supported her self-proclaimed “small life” and stood up for her against the big bad book chain owner.

So, she fell out of love with Frank. That’s fair. But why did she have to end up with anybody? Ephron is the master of unlikeable rom-com characters, and yet Joe Fox might just be the most unlikeable of them all.

Signing Off

In the film’s final scene, Joe admits that he’s been behind the romantic online chatter and has known Kathleen’s identity basically the whole time. She cries and goes weak in the knees. Now, Miss Girl, I know you’re in a vulnerable state (because this man single-handedly destroyed your livelihood), but please know you deserve better.

I love rom-coms. I want to spend two hours being swept away in my seat. I want circumstances so unbelievable that they simply must be fiction. I want meet-cutes and grand gestures and music montages. I want it all. But I don’t want my protagonists settling for garbage men.

The most charming part about the grand finale? The reveal in the end credits that dozens of publishers donated the books shown in the movie, and they were all donated locally after the shoot.

I hope this movie never gets remade, if only because I’m sick of remakes. But I would love to see Kathleen embrace the season of change in her life solo, because the only good thing about Joe Fox is his adorable dog, Brinkley. I want her to take a job as a librarian or book editor, and I want her to go out and sing Britney Spears’ “E-mail My Heart” at karaoke with her friends. I want to see her single and thriving. That’s the romance she deserved.