Did Nora Ephron Broker the AOL-Time Warner Deal?

Is Nora Ephron responsible for AOL’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner? Ephron co-authored and directed the 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail, a somewhat flatfooted update of the charming 1940 Ernst Lubitsch movie The Shop Around the Corner (which was also the source material for the even more charming 1963 Broadway musical She Loves Me). You’ve Got Mail updated the earlier film’s epistolary plot (two shopkeepers hate each other by day, each not knowing the other is the correspondent to whom he/she sends anonymous love letters by night) for the Internet age; in the new version, the two swapped messages via AOL. This was made clear not only by the film’s title and logo but also by a scene in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan used AOL instant messaging while lying on their respective beds to discuss why guys revere the Godfather movies.

As it happens, You’ve Got Mail was made by … Warner Bros.! In retrospect, then, it may have been not merely a romantic comedy with a little product placement tossed in; it may have been an attempt to soften the ground for AOL’s latest acquisition. Although the film doesn’t portray AOL-the-corporation in any particular light, it does portray Tom Hanks, scion of another giant communications empire (in this case a Borders/Barnes & Noble-type book superstore chain) as being sweet and misunderstood, even though he puts Meg Ryan’s independent bookstore out of business! Also, think about how Meg Ryan’s leftist-writer boyfriend, played by Greg Kinnear, is portrayed in the film. The Kinnear character (an apparent amalgam of New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum and Nation publisher and editorial director Victor Navasky) is shown to be an amusingly vain and pretentious technophobe. This is significant, because in the film it is Kinnear who gets to articulate the case against concentration of corporate power. And he’s a buffoon! You’d no sooner entrust the U.S. economy to him than you’d entrust Meg Ryan to him! (Chatterbox pauses here to emphasize that he doesn’t consider either Rosenbaum or Navasky to be vain or pretentious, though Rosenbaum is a bit of a technophobe; see his Slate dispatches, “The Last Luddite Gets Wired,” which Rosenbaum was too much of a Luddite ever to complete. In real life, Meg Ryan would be lucky to have either gentleman for a boyfriend, though Navasky is already married.) When Ryan and Hanks finally smooch at the film’s end, you can think of it as a consummated romance; or, you can think of it as … a merger!

Chatterbox is well aware that he is engaging in just the sort of paranoid logic that the Kinnear character would indulge in. Still, if the merger does go through, Chatterbox urges the Justice Department take the precaution of stipulating that AOL Time Warner not be permitted to film any sequels to You’ve Got Mail. Or, if such sequels are permitted, the characters should be compelled to switch over to another Internet service provider, like Erols or MindSpring. (Mindful of his own corporate parent’s delicate position vis-à-vis the Justice Department these days, Chatterbox won’t suggest MSN.)