Before watching the movie: The late 90s, a time when the internet was just beginning to be a thing normal people used, when it was beginning to be treated like the post office or telephone and nobody had a business interest in controlling access to it.
PSA aside, a time when the internet was new but probably safe enough, not something fearful. A time when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could be Hollywood’s most bankably romantic couple yet again by somehow meeting online without knowing each other’s real identity, and this is a good thing. Yay technology. After watching the movie:
“Shopgirl” and “NY152” met in an AOL chatroom and immediately hit it off, emailing each other behind their respective partners’ backs, carefully omitting all personal details. Behind the screen, Shopgirl is Kathleen Kelly, second-generation owner of children’s bookstore The Shop Around The Corner, and NY152 is the face of the corporate competition coming into town, Joe Fox of the Fox and Sons mega bookstore chain. Meeting face to face without realizing they already have an online relationship, business clouds their interaction and they become enemies. Warring professionally and bonding privately, the truth won’t be an easy transition.
I was surprised to learn that this film was an update to a story written in 1937 and produced as a film twice before 1950. Corresponding anonymously is much more common in the internet age than it was before, so it feels like a concept that the world finally caught up with. This movie is also a great example of how “online” relationships are “real”, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly (and the promotional material uses “reality” terms as antonyms to “online”). If anything, the online side of their relationship is more real than their face-to-face interaction, where they become the hostile character they think the other expects them to be.
Joe especially seems like he’s playing a character when in business mode, even before he learns the truth and keeps it from Kathleen. For the first half of the story, he seems to always be in a suit, his battle armor. Sometimes when online he might appear in casual clothes, but once he’s fixing the relationship, we never see the suit again. He’s oddly shifted from part-time antagonist to the hero, which I’m not entirely comfortable with. The first half of the story is with Kathleen, but then once Joe is let in on the dramatic irony, it’s the story of him somewhat manipulating her to adjust their relationship to the point where he can reveal it to her. He’s only correcting her impression of him, but it’s still a bit disturbing for the heroine to become a project for her former antagonist to “tweak”.
Obviously, AOL has fairly prime product placement as the conduit through which the characters meet as well as the source of the title. It may well be corporate synergy, or close to it, since this movie was produced by Time Warner, which infamously lost a lot of money merging with AOL the very next year. However, what really caught my attention was all the real books. The Shop Around The Corner, being a children’s bookstore in the late 90s, is full of my childhood, which lends a surprising amount of verisimilitude, and got me thinking about an independent children’s bookstore I used to go to.
This movie is worth it for just dramatic irony running through the entire story, let alone the Hanks/Ryan chemistry, the bibliophilic flavor, and the (now dated) tech-savvy concept bringing an unusual story dynamic home.