This year marks the *gasp* 20th anniversary of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. It’s one of our favorites here at Zelda & Scout — even if we do blame it for coloring our views of what it would be like to live in New York, setting up expectations that were unrealistic even then. No one who owns a failing independent bookstore would be able to afford a spacious, Upper West Side one-bedroom, even by some miracle of rent control.
You’ve Got Mail is based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László. The play has in fact been repurposed several times, into a variety of adaptations: the 1940 film, The Shop Around the Corner; the 1949 musical film adaptation, In the Good Old Summertime; the 1963 Broadway musical, She Loves Me; and then, of course, the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan staple. But while that latest reboot remains no less charming two decades later, the whole thing does feel quite inaccurate to our New York experience. So I’d like to propose a reboot, for the pre-apocalyptic age, to see if it’s even possible to capture the 1998 magic of Nora Ephron’s classic in 2018.
First things first: We need to move our scene from the Upper West Side to Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. And our heroine, Lena Kelly (because it just doesn’t seem like she’d go by Kathleen), definitely doesn’t own a bookstore. Lena, played by Constance Wu, inherited her mother’s shop of…some kind, and it’s struggling, but she wants to keep her staff employed and her customers happy. She vents her frustrations on Twitter, via her handle @shopgirl — the account that’s not connected to her shop at all, the one that she tries to keep anonymous.
It’s there that she meets @BK152, with whom she starts a conversational relationship over DMs, and thus our plot can really begin. Because the 2018 equivalent of meeting in a chatroom is definitely sliding into someones DMs, right? @BK152 is actually our second heroine (because it’s 2018 and the world needs more queer rom-coms): Joanna “Jo” Fox. Jo, portrayed by Stephanie Beatriz, works for the corporate version of whatever kind of shop Lena owns (Look I’m already suspending my disbelief a lot here, but I know we can all agree that corporate-versus-local-bookstore clash probably wouldn’t happen in 2018 Brooklyn, and I’m just not clever enough to come up with an analogous industry. If you have a brilliant idea, let me know in the comments!). In non-internet life, Jo is hoping to acquire Lena’s humble shop and turn it into one of her franchises.
Lena refuses to sell, so Jo’s company finds a space close around the corner and opens up a franchise as scheduled, worrying Lena’s employees. Cue the (revised) iconic line: “If we go under, I’m not going to be able to pay my rent and then I’m going to have to move…to Jersey!” The employees of Lena’s shop will be played by some up and comers, with one exception: The incomparable Essie Davis will take on the role of a slightly younger Birdie Conrad.
Now for their charming, IRL meet-cute, Lena and Jo meet at a street fair. Not unlike their 1998 counterparts, Lena does not know who Jo is, business-wise; Jo has only just figured out who Lena is; and neither of them knows the other is her online confidante. As soon as Lena figures out Jo’s role in her professional struggle, the relationship goes sour, and she finds herself in a very real fight to save her business. As she loses money, she turns to @BK152 for advice, and Jo inadvertently tells her to go to war with whomever her enemies may be — and offers to meet up in person. Lena takes the first part of the advice, but ignores the invite to meet.
Lena’s boyfriend, Frank (who I assume is still obsessed with typewriters, being an annoying hipster — I’m picturing an Adam Driver type), bangs out a viral Twitter thread about gentrification and major corporations buying up smaller business and trying to still pass them off as independent. Gothamist picks up the threat, this starts off a chain reaction in the neighborhood, and Lena becomes the face of the campaign to oust the corporation from Prospect Heights.
When Frank goes on a popular local podcast/radio show to defend the shop, he hits it off with the host, and Lena realizes she may need more help than expected. She takes Jo up on the offer to meet. You know how this bit goes: Jo shows up at the bar only to realize that Lena is both her professional enemy and her online paramour. She chooses not to reveal herself as @BK152; they trade barbs and sarcastic remarks and leave with unaltered opinions of each other. When Lena gets home, she sends out some sad subtweets, making Jo feel guilty. Lena’s store slowly goes under, as the hipster rage machine turns its Warby Parker-spectacled eyes to another cause célèbre. Jo, meanwhile, breaks up with her girlfriend (played by the She Loves Me 2016 revival star and all around fantastic human, Laura Benanti). Spring arrives. And as Lena is trying to figure out how to move on with her life, Jo reaches out.
Long story short, with their professional lives no longer so entangled, Jo offers to help Lena figure out what her next step is. Despite their tumultuous history, it’s clear they have good chemistry (I really think the best thing about this remake would be the potential for Stephanie Beatriz and Constance Wu’s amazing banter). Meanwhile, @BK152 apologizes to @shopgirl for flaking. They two talk online, and off. They become sort-of friends. And Lena falls for in-person Jo, while prepping to finally meet @BK152.
Like all great rom-coms, it all works out in the end. They share a kiss in a sunny Prospect Park, with Jo’s dog Brinkley by their side, and live happily ever after.
What I’ve learned in trying to adapt this 1998 classic for today is that You’ve Got Mail doesn’t really hold up in our current climate. It would be hard to make the corporate monstrosity look redeemable in late-stage capitalism, gentrification is too serious to play off in this way, and so much of the story relies on an anonymity we don’t have in 2018. Despite the story itself being adapted multiple times over the years, updating it for a current audience, without major suspension of disbelief, might be difficult.
But perhaps that’s why we need it. Maybe we need more ridiculous romantic comedies in our lives right now. We need enemies to friends to lovers and other tropes, we need the city as another character in our story, we need soundtracks that make us feel like walking through Brooklyn on a spring day is the most content we can ever be, and we need some happily-ever-afters for people of all sorts. I hope Hollywood will give them to us.