Mails of the Species

An online romance, plus an Irish criminal and Moses.

You’ve Got Mail

Directed by Nora Ephron

Warner Bros.

The General

Directed by John Boorman

Sony Picture Classics

Prince of Egypt

Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells

DreamWorks SKG

I’d like to have been on the set of Sleepless in Seattle (1993) when Nora Ephron directed the scene in which a misty-eyed Meg Ryan spies on Tom Hanks as he frolics on a beach with his little son. It felt as if Ephron were standing off-camera with a megaphone shouting: “OK, Tom, frolic! More frolic! Now–romp! OK, gambol!” In life, Ephron is evidently incisive, but she doesn’t have a good director’s insight into the minutiae of human interaction. She’s the opposite of a detail person. Almost all the scenes she writes and stages are blandly generalized–a homogeneity that seems part commercial cunning (her movies go down easy, like Muzak) and part the result of being rich and snobbishly insulated on the Upper West Side of New York City, that magic kingdom where people parade their liberalism but the word “Brooklyn” is always good for a laugh and a shudder.

You’ve Got Mail (which she co-wrote with her sister, Delia) is based on Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson’s The Shop Around The Corner (1940), one of the most enchanting comedies ever made. It’s a classic setup: Two people work side by side and can’t stand each other but–unbeknownst to either–are pen pals (“Dear Friend”) who pour out their hearts in prose. When I went online in the early ‘90s, the first thing I thought (and posted in a chat group) was: “Oh, now someone will remake TheShop Around the Corner with e-mail”–which I mention to spotlight not my prescience but the obviousness of the idea. It came to me while watching a pretty young woman in a San Francisco cybercafe who seemed to have a wonderful, funny, flirtatious personality online (I was in a position to read some of what she was typing) but who logged off and buttoned up her coat without looking left or right and hurried into the street as if afraid that someone might actually speak to her.

The story works better when set in a society with a clear gulf between public behavior and private feelings–a society rather unlike our own, in which the two are increasingly interchangeable. Ephron has diluted the drama even more by making her cyberchums (Hanks and Ryan) friendly, down-to-earth, and adorable, not at all the sorts who’d save their true selves for their electronic epistles. There is conflict, but it’s surface. Hanks’ Joe Fox is the heir to the vast Fox Books (read: Barnes & Noble), which relishes the process of opening “superstores” and driving the local mom and pop joints out of business. Ryan’s Katherine Kelly owns a small children’s bookstore called, amusingly, The Shop Around the Corner. She and Joe are snarling antagonists, but online (America Online, actually, which has been flacking this picture for months) they are Shopgirl and NY152, and are constantly shoring each other up. Joe even gives Katherine tips on how to lock horns with her (unnamed) adversary.

One of the best things about Lubitsch’s original is that its Austro-Hungarian, kitsch-laden universe (Nikolaus Laszlo’s original play was set in a Budapest perfumery) barely conceals real economic desperation, and there are serious consequences when the two lovers clash and one of them gets fired. In the world of You’ve Got Mail, the heroine might lose her shop, but she gets to keep her Upper West Side apartment and to continue to frequent Zabar’s and Starbucks, and her employees are happily hired by the competition. The movie, without seeming to realize it, turns into a romantic parable about the joys of being absorbed by a conglomerate. Why, its lovers never even get a busy signal when they dial AOL!

You’ve Got Mail gets better as it gets more relaxed, and the famous cafe scene–in which the man discovers in horror who his correspondent really is–remains sure-fire. Ephron does well at evoking the ways in which e-mail and snail mail diverge, the former being so much more impulsive and exhibitionist. And I loved how Ryan flinched when the screen displayed an instant message from NY152: He’s actually there, in real time! Too close! But where The Shop Around the Corner had a matrix of relationships, Ephron reduces You’ve Got Mail to its two leads. Joe and Katherine have featherweight significant others (Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear) who can be discarded at the narrative’s convenience without muss or fuss. The other characters are just friends to be talked at. (You don’t even get a sense that the rest of the world uses e-mail.)

The director clearly adores Ryan, but she’s the actress’s worst enemy, goading her into ever more sickening reaches of chin-wagging cuteness–such as her fatuous look of enchantment on the subway or the furtive little hip-hops to her laptop after her Luddite boyfriend has left for the office. Hanks does better. It’s nice to see him playing a self-serving wisenheimer in a light comedy. He looks careworn–AIDS, Vietnam, malfunctioning space capsules, and Omaha Beach will do that to you–but his timing is still amazing. His wisecracks sound as if he’s nervously thinking them up on the spot, and he’s better than anyone at saying something he doesn’t mean and then wincing in horror, as if longing to hit the “Delete” key.

Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson), the protagonist of John Boorman’s marvelous almost-comedy The General, is a gangster in the flamboyant movie tradition of movie mobsters who smile at the bullets that end their lives. They aren’t heroes but they have a bullying magnetism that Boorman calls “pagan.” The real-life Cahill, who thrived in Dublin in the ‘80s and was gunned down in 1994, was the most legendary criminal in modern Irish history. He was a “whaddya got?” rebel–someone who could have justified his thieving on all sorts of grounds, from contempt for the repressive, hypocritical police force to contempt for the repressive, hypocritical church. He might even have fancied himself a Robin Hood, although Boorman (who also wrote the screenplay) is careful to show that if Cahill stole from the rich he gave to no one but himself and his family, and that his thieving put a lot of poor people out of work. Call him a roguish tribal chieftain or an ornery sociopath, he is what he is. And, for much of the movie, I had no moral reaction to his sometimes brutal exploits; I just watched. How radical! There are different kinds of artistic neutrality: the nihilist kind that signals “Nothing matters, so who cares? Let’s just get off on the spectacle!” and Boorman’s kind, which signals “This subject is too big to reduce to a thesis. Let’s lay it out and study it.”

Gleeson gives you something to study. Purposefully inexpressive (the real Cahill would only be photographed with his hand blocking his face), he has a thick neck and eyes that, while small, suggest watchful calculation. The General begins with his murder and the cheers that go up when word reaches the police station, then flashes back: As a boy, he steals pastries, which he gallantly shares with his future wife, Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy). But even his gallantry is suffused with mulishness. Refusing to budge from a condemned housing project, the adult Cahill doesn’t bother to reason, he just sits–past the point where the building is razed and the trailer he has moved to the spot has been firebombed. When a city delegation marches on his tent and offers to set his family up in a new house, the inveterate burglar asks for a place in a wealthier neighborhood so that he’ll be “closer to work.” His capers range from casual break-ins to armed holdups to intricate jewel heists–the latter capped with an impudent visit to the police station to establish an alibi.

W hat works against Cahill is his own runaway success. To monitor his movements, the authorities appoint an inspector (an amusingly sober Jon Voight, reunited with Boorman for the first time since the 1972 Deliverance), who soon has the resources to post cops on Cahill’s back fence and on the street in front of his house, and to follow him and his gang wherever they go. Using only the simplest cinematic means, Boorman achieves what Martin Scorsese needed whip-pans and zoom lenses and a cacophonous sound mix to do at the climax of GoodFellas (1990): He gives you the jittery and suffocating sense of the universe closing in. Hunted by both the cops and the Irish Republican Army, the snorting, overweight, diabetic Cahill does the opposite of lie low.

Boorman pays a price for his neutrality: The General isn’t an emotional grabber. But on its own terms it’s nearly perfect. All I missed was something more than winks and hints about the nature of the triangle among Cahill, his wife, and her sister (the lush Angeline Ball), with whom he fathered several children. (Apparently, it was a happy arrangement for all.) Some have argued that Boorman, the director of Excalibur (1981) and Hope and Glory (1987), doesn’t employ his extravagant visual gifts in The General, which is in black and white and isn’t ostentatious in its mythic resonances. But Boorman, pickled since youth in Arthurian legends, has become nearly unemployable thanks to the mythic resonances in such epic turkeys as Zardoz (1974), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Where the Heart Is (1990), and the worthy dud Beyond Rangoon (1995). It’s agreeable to find him grounded in the here and now–the magic is there but below the surface.

The magic is all on the surface of Prince of Egypt, an animated musical version of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt that at times feels as if it might have been called Indiana Moses and the Temple of Doom. Ever on the lookout for a new way to tell an old story–or, rather, a new old way to tell an old story–DreamWorks SKG has recast the life of Moses as the saga of two brothers who end up on opposite sides of an issue. The baby Moses, his existence endangered by the pharaoh’s edict calling for all Hebrew sons to be slain, is set adrift in a basket on the Nile before being discovered–and adopted–by one of the pharaoh’s wives. Cut to a chariot race through the city that out-Ben Hurs Ben Hur, after which the victor, Moses, goads his brother Ramses on to ever more high-spirited antics: “Oh, come on Ramses, where’s your sense of fun?” But then Moses bumps into his real sister, Miriam, and brother, Aaron, and learns the truth about his origins. Ramses, who becomes the new pharaoh, isn’t pleased when his brother becomes a champion of Hebrew civil rights instead of the wild and crazy guy with whom he grew up.

A ctually, there are two brothers in the biblical tale–Moses and Aaron, the latter directed by God to speak for his brother, who scholars believe had a speech impediment. Prince of Egypt might have been more psychologically compelling if it had set up a rivalry between the good and bad brothers–between Aaron and Ramses–for Moses’ soul. But Aaron hardly figures here and, of course, psychology isn’t the point. What wows ‘em are Broadway-style showstoppers, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, whose work has become less tuneful and more pretentious since the heady days of Godspell and Pippin. Schwartz’s rhymes are all of the moon-June variety, and the big inspirational number, in which hope is conceded sometimes to “fly away, like silver birds,” asks: “Who knows what miracles you can achieve/ When you believe?” The miracle here is the animation and production design, which has less to do with belief than with talent and millions of dollars.

This is sensational cinema: crowds swarming among pyramids in eye-popping 3-D, camerawork that’s distinctly Spielbergian in its fluidity. Everything we love about biblical-movie kitsch is here, only concentrated and heightened. Best of all is a sequence in which Moses falls asleep against the wall of a temple and, in his dream, the two-dimensional hieroglyphs of familiar Egyptian painting begin to move, enacting the story of the Exodus in stiff, horizontal processions. The dream exalts the primitive art that is the movie’s visual inspiration in a way that seems truly religious.