Like Fred Astaire gently yet firmly leading Ginger Rogers across a ballroom, director Ernst Lubitsch led audiences of the '30s and '40s through a series of movie comedies that have perhaps never been equaled. Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be--so palpably his own was Lubitsch's directing style that it came to be known as "the Lubitsch touch." Few have agreed on what exactly constituted the Lubitsch touch. Was it the movies' air of Continental frivolity? Or was it Lubitsch's ironic take on the movies' air of Continental frivolity--the single dark cloud that hung over his sunny cityscapes? Whatever it was, you could feel it in almost every move the director made, with the actors or with the camera. As he once told an interviewer, "The camera should comment, insinuate, make an epigram or a bon mot as well as tell a story." Perhaps someday we will speak of "the Ephron touch," but I doubt it. First with Sleepless in Seattle and now with You've Got Mail, Nora Ephron has tried to revive the spirit of movies she clearly loves. But when all is said and done, it's Ephron's movies, not the movies she's reviving, that belong on a respirator. The Ephron touch is less a squeeze on the shoulder than a shove on the back. Sleepless in Seattle worked, to the extent it did, because Tom Hanks refused to be shoved around, turning in an admirably low-key performance. With You've Got Mail, Ephron tries not to shove, but she still winds up falling all over us--a director with two left feet. Lubitsch's Shop Around the Corner set in cyberspace, You've Got Mail stars Hanks and Meg Ryan as two people who fall madly in love through the detached intimacy of e-mail. But is their love real, or is it, you know, virtually real? It's difficult to say, since we don't feel either version very strongly. Ephron, who co-wrote the script with her sister Delia, makes Hanks the owner of a Borders-like bookstore chain, Ryan the owner of a Pooh Corner-like bookstore that's about to be wiped off the map by Hanks' foray into Manhattan's Upper West Side. On-line, they're friends, perhaps more than friends. Off-line, they're enemies. And never the twain shall meet, right? Wrong. Following Shop Around the Corner's storyline, Hanks' Joe first discovers who Ryan is and then discovers that he loves her anyway. That Ryan's Kate eventually does the same points out one of the flaws of Ephron's '90s update: Kate has to lose her livelihood in order to find love. As in Sleepless in Seattle, Ryan turns a nothing role into a little bit of something by mugging, this time with explicit references to twirling and twinkling.
His eyes a little puffy with age, Hanks gives the movie some much-needed gravity, but not enough to keep it from floating away, like an untethered balloon at a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Speaking of which, Manhattan gets the Woody Allen treatment in You've Got Mail. Even Starbucks, which Ephron satirizes so lovingly as to constitute a product endorsement, comes across like the contemporary equivalent of a little café in Budapest. That it was set in Budapest was the only ridiculous thing about The Shop Around the Corner; otherwise, Lubitsch took a rather clear-eyed look at lovers and other strangers. Next to him, Ephron seems genuinely cross-eyed in her approach to modern romance. And where Lubitsch used the camera to comment, insinuate, make an epigram or a bon mot, Ephron uses the music soundtrack to punctuate her ideas, the punctuation an endless series of exclamation points.