It seemed like a winning idea: Take the charming romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940), where bickering co-workers don't realize they're secretly pen pals, and update it by having the lovestruck duo meet via the Internet. Better yet, add the team behind the 1993 hit, Sleepless in Seattle, and you can't miss, right? Wrong.

Director Nora Ephron, who co-wrote the script with her sister Delia, has made several changes which completely alter the tone of the story. Instead of being a clever examination of the difference between public and private personas and how that factors into the mating game, You've Got Mail focuses on cutthroat competitiveness among a group of relentlessly self-absorbed New Yorkers.

Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) have become smitten with their online alter egos. Without sharing any pesky personal information, they indulge in much philosophical musing and observation about Manhattan's Upper West Side. But what they don't know about each other would quickly squelch their cyber-romance: Kathleen owns a small children's bookstore, which is about to be put out of business by the Fox Books megastore opening nearby.

Of all the filmmakers working in Hollywood, it would seem that Nora Ephron understands the power politics of contemporary relationships, but she constructs an obvious inequity here. Kathleen's bookstore, which she inherited from her deceased mother and hopes to pass on to a future daughter, is a homespun, nurturing matriarchy. Joe Fox joins his father and grandfather in a ruthless, corporate patriarchy which strives for bookstore domination with take-no-prisoners gusto.

So by the point of revelation, Joe has -- without professional remorse -- crushed Kathleen, yet Ephron wants her to turn on a dime and unequivocally love the man who destroyed her cherished livelihood. Throughout the film, Nora Ephron relies heavily on the likability of her stars to smooth over numerous rough spots. This is a tall order, especially when she surrounds them with flashy but hollow supporting characters.

You've Got Mail turns out to be like too many bad Web sites, chock-full of flashy graphics but infuriatingly insubstantial.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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