Unnecessary Reboots: You’ve Got Mail

Welcome to Unnecessary Reboots, a series in which I write a plot synopsis for a 2020 reboot of a film that doesn’t need one, because I’m a bad person.

Rebooting You’ve Got Mail, a quintessentially 1998 film, may seem insane, until you consider that it’s actually based on a Hungarian play from 1937, and also, that there’s no such thing as sanity or common decency here.

Miklós László’s Parfumerie is a Hungarian stage play about man who owns a perfume shop and thinks his wife is cheating on him with one of his employees. The employee, however, is madly in love with an anonymous pen pal, without knowing that she’s also the shopgirl he gets into arguments with every day at the store. You’ve Got Mail is actually only the third English-language movie to be made of the stage play. In 1940, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan starred in The Shop Around the Corner, which is essentially the same except the store sells leather goods; in 1949, Judy Garland and Van Johnson starred in In The Good Old Summertime, which takes the basic idea and makes it into both a musical and a period piece, set about fifty years earlier in a music shop. Even past this, the play was turned into a Broadway musical in 1963 called She Loves Me. You’ve Got Mail wouldn’t even be the first of these films to be rebooted; in 2001, The Shop Around the Corner was adapted for French audiences into La Boutique au Coin de la Rue.

It is of course, very funny and very awful that the primary change that Nora and Delia Ephron made to a fairly simple romantic concept is that they increased the amount of capitalism in the script by roughly 1000%, turning the leads from coworkers into a billionaire and the independent business owner he is pushing out of the neighborhood with his generic big box store. The billionaire himself compares his business to Costco, the most romantic of all retail locations. In a true 1990s move, the movie both romanticises and criticizes the uber-corporation phenomenon that was creeping across America at the time, allowing Meg Ryan to puncture and push at capitalism, only to eventually give in with a sort of shrug and a sigh that This Is What Is Meant To Happen. And then another megacorporation, America Online, helps the protagonists realize that It Doesn’t Matter That You Destroyed My Life, Opposites Attract, We Were Meant To Be, Especially Because You’re Tom Hanks And You Have a Nice Dog.

So, how do you reboot a film that’s one of a long line of reboots itself, featuring a love story that wilfully ignores the problematic nature of every step of the relationship in the way that only truly charming romantic comedies can manage to do?

Unread Notification (coming July 1st 2020) goes like this:

Emilia Clarke
Emilia Clarke

Kathleen Kelly (Emilia Clarke) is a girl struggling to make it as a freelance blogger in San Francisco. She’s dating Frank Navasky (Timothee Chalamet), who spends most of his time playing in shitty bands and making pro-socialist zines, which is a nice way of saying he’s broke and angry. Frank lives with his parents; Kathleen lives with three roommates. Her roommates are essentially the same characters as the shop workers from You’ve Got Mail; they’re played by members of The Birthday Boys. Her bed is in a closet that somehow has a window. The executives who read the script wanted her to live in a 2000 square foot apartment with “just like, a bunch of laundry everywhere;” the screenwriter fired back with a sampling of the current San Francisco rental market. The window was the compromise, because, frankly, how will we know Kathleen Kelly is spunky and wistful if she doesn’t have a window to stare out of?

Jai Courtney

Meanwhile, Joe Fox (Jai Courtney) is still the scion of a giant bookstore business, except we learn that the business and the family have just declared bankruptcy. In the scene where we’re introduced to Joe Fox, he is working out on a Peloton and has to turn up the volume on his cycling class to drown out his father in the next room, who’s ranting about how Amazon and millennials have ruined their business. Joe Fox lives in a massive mansion with his parents in whatever part of San Francisco is for the really rich people. Both the outside and the inside of the mansion is unbearably, unflinchingly white.

Joe Fox is dating Patricia Eden, who is still played by Parker Posey and is still a high-powered executive and largely unchanged, except that she’s also an Instagram influencer. The film is vague about what kind of influencing she does, but she livestreams during most of the scenes she’s in, and there’s a really egregious scene involving her shooting some #sponcon for some kind of skinny tea. She is in more of the movie, though, and is easily the funniest thing about it.

Joe Fox does not have a black employee/friend in this film. Inevitably during the press tour someone will ask about it, and the director will proudly give the line he’s memorized about how they didn’t want to “update the original without considering problematic elements” and that the Dave Chapelle character was essentially removed because there’s no practical reason for him to be there, and because in a modern film, it might read like he’s there under duress. Twitter will point out that the primary cast is now entirely white, and the studio will ignore this.

Anyway. Kathleen, who would like to be able to afford new underwear, breaks down and interviews for a warehouse job at Amazon. We see Kathleen interviewing in someone’s cluttered and lived in office; this is intercut with Joe, also interviewing at Amazon, in a much larger and nicer office. Joe is interviewing with an Amazon hiring manager (Lil Rel) who used to work for Fox Books, and it’s implied that Joe got this interview because his dad made a call. Joe acts like an entitled buffoon, didn’t bring a resume and borrows a crayon and legal paper from Lil Rel to write down his one-line resume because he didn’t bring one. It is very, very clear that Joe expects to be brought onto Amazon as some sort of Books Publishing Genius.

Cue the comedic hard cut to Joe and Kathleen wearing safety glasses and vests, because, surprise, they’re both working the warehouse floor. Their meet cute comes from them both asking stupid questions during on-the-job-training. This scene is filled with racially diverse extras. Joe and Kathleen are teamed up to do some sort of something involving a hand scanner, probably checking stock or something. They argue over something menial, but there’s, like, chemistry. (Depending on the director, there will either be chemistry, or just a musical score that will tell you they have chemistry.) They inevitably fuck up a task that’s not really that hard, each blames the other, and they get separated to put tape on boxes.

We get a montage of both of these characters’ days; commuting, home, work, etc. Kathleen’s side of the montage is fairly comedic; we see her struggling to do her job without dropping things, her struggling to use public transit without dropping things, her struggling to make microwave dinners without dropping them. We get several shots of her falling into bed, still in her warehouse clothes, and her roommates coming in and tucking her in. Joe, meanwhile, gets up every day, dresses in business casual, changes at the warehouse, and changes back at the end of the day; it becomes clear that his family and friends think he has an office job with Amazon. He drives a Tesla; we see him have friendly, welcoming interactions with actual Amazon executives in the electric charging part of the Amazon lot. We see quite a few dinners with his family, with his girlfriend Patricia, and with fashionable friends, in a series of quick cuts; in each shot, he’s sitting in the same spot, with the same generic smile.

At the end of the montage, we see Joe and Kathleen, along with a few of the other workers who trained with them, picking up their first checks, which are of course paper checks. Kathleen happens to spot that Joe’s check is much nicer than hers; he is, of course, being paid more than her. She looks nauseous and doesn’t say anything at first, but outside, when he peels off with a few others to head to the parking lot, she does say something. Joe says something truly horrific about how he probably earned his paycheck; she’s very clever and cutting in return. He pretends to blow her off, but we see that he’s actually fairly upset by this. This is followed by a comedic scene where Kathleen teleconferences with her roommates and Frank, telling them about it and worried she was too harsh. The roommates back her up with unconditional support (a lot of “yas queen”); Frank is distracted throughout.

Joe and Kathleen, as millennials, are constant phone checkers, and at this point we really get to the You’ve Got Mail meat of the plot. Previously in the film we’ve seen that Kathleen is obsessed with some cartoon series; we learned that quite a few of her freelance articles have been about this show, and Joe made fun of her for her [Cartoon] t-shirt in their confrontation. Here, we learn that Kathleen freelances and tweets about [Cartoon] under the pseudonym Kath Keene. Joe, meanwhile, has a generic glitzy Twitter that Patricia clearly curates to make Joe appear like the perfect internet boyfriend accessory; but he also has an alt Twitter account that’s pretty much just a [Cartoon] stan account. We see Joe and Kath discussing some news about the show, and then moving to DMs, where they ask about each other’s day. Through their honest and kind conversation, we learn that they’ve been internet friends for a while now. Kathleen tells Joe a version of her confrontation with Joe; Joe gives her support, but with a more moderate take than her friends’. Kathleen tells internet-Joe that she appreciates that he “tells it like it is.”

Oh no! We’re only about thirty minutes into the movie and the plot is frankly kinda specious, time for the supporting cast to step up! We get a series of comedic sequences; these are basically excuses for the movie to have good comedic actors make the movie look better. These scenes will generally have a thin veneer tying them back to the main plot; whatever Kathleen and Joe are doing, we generally see them messaging each other about it, or just checking their phone. With a great editor, this will work better; we’ll, say, transition from some scene where Parker Posey was living that influencer life, and as we transition to a Kathleen scene we’ll see her getting a photo message from Joe about Parker Posey’s skinny tea with some message like “If you don’t hear from me in two hours it’s because my girlfriend didn’t get enough instagram likes and she killed me.” Examples of scenes include: Kathleen attending one of Frank’s shitty band’s shows, with songs like “Why Does Karl Marx’s Beard Make Me So Horny” and “I Would Die for La Croix”; Joe acting as photographer for Parker Posey as she pretends she enjoys the zoo #forthegram; Kathleen negotiating her pay rate on an article with a blog editor (Kate McKinnon) who spontaneously goes deaf any time Kathleen asks for a fair rate, and keeps pitching Kathleen on doing dangerous things to her body for blog articles; etc.

Then we get a scene at Amazon. Kathleen gets laid off; the man who hired her informs her that she performed below quota. Kathleen is obviously very upset. Joe, whose internet friend Kath has been honest with him about her own economic struggles, follows Kathleen outside and tries to be nice to her and ask if she needs help, or a ride. Kathleen is very, very angry at him, because she feels that he’s still condescending to her. This scene is probably the closest this film gets to being true to life instead of putting a sort of quirky-cute veneer on the whole situation; Emilia Clarke gets a chance to act as she cuts into him about all of the things she’s had to work for that he’s never even had to think about.

More quick scenes. Kathleen Kelly gets dumped by her boyfriend via cookie cake; we see her grimly monetize this into an article for her delighted editor (Kate McKinnon again). It’s revealed that Joe has been quietly supplementing a jar his mother keeps for her vacation fund with his warehouse money, trying to make sure that she can still take one this year, explaining why he, perhaps, didn’t ragequit the warehouse forever ago like we might’ve assumed. Kathleen has a birthday, and her roommates pitch in to give her a birthday party full of love and laughter at the Musee Mecanique. We get a scene where Patricia breaks up with Joe because he never takes her out to eat anymore, with Patricia then staging a photoshoot with him to pretend that he broke up with her, amicably, by like giving her a bunch of roses or something.

Eventually it’s revealed that Joe has actually known that his internet friend Kath was Kathleen the whole time. We also learn that Joe has both been the primary producer on [Cartoon] under a pseudonym of his own, and that his family owns the blog site that Kathleen does most of her work for. He calls the editor (Kate McKinnon again) and basically arranges it so that Kathleen will get a–well-paid!–chance to interview the creators and tour the offices of [Cartoon.]

Kathleen, suitably over the moon and dressed in an incredibly cute outfit, gets her dream interview and tour. During the interview, the showrunner she’s interviewing gets a call; the show has been picked up for syndication overseas. Because the show was primarily backed by Joe, and because he gave pretty much everyone on the show the option to earn money off their work, this means that Joe but also everyone in the office is now substantially richer. The showrunner goes to call Joe, and this is where Kathleen gets the chance to put two and two together and realize that Joe Fox got her this interview, and that, also, he’s responsible for her favorite show. The showrunner invites the crew behind [Cartoon], Joe, Kathleen and even her roommates all out to a celebratory dinner, and before we know it, our main characters are at a bar together.

Surrounded by happy people, Joe gets the incredibly awkward chance to apologize to Kathleen. He tells her he’s sorry for being condescending, that he was hurting and thought he could still pretend to be the guy on top he always was, but apparently, that guy was just an asshole. Kathleen, even though she really shouldn’t, also apologizes for being a jerk and reassures his male ego that he’s still a good person. Somewhere in there Joe reveals their Twitter connection, probably by messaging her the next part of their conversation. Have they really built up a believable romance in this film? Probably not, but at this final revelation, Kathleen realizes that all the good things in her life are because of Joe, and Joe admits that Kathleen’s the only real person in his life, and they kiss. Kathleen’s roommates get a humorous chance to be confused about how the hell this happened, only to paper over it with some platitude about Love.


There’s a mid-credits scene where we see Joe and Kathleen in bed in their own, modest, cozy apartment. Kathleen has her laptop open; she’s about to write a memoir. She titles it UNREAD NOTIFICATION, which is when the movie reminds us that, yes, that’s also the title of the film.

You can find this real-life blog writer and all-around idiot on Twitter @yipp33kiyay.

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