Nora Ephron can’t direct her way out of a popcorn bag. She has no sense of pace; spatial relations elude her; and her answer to just about any situation is to blast a pop song. But bad directors are a dime a dozen, and Ephron’s ineptitude isn’t the worst thing about her. What’s more irksome is that she’s somehow managed to con many people into thinking of her as someone who can play the Hollywood game while maintaining some kind of integrity. In fact, her “romantic comedies” are not only as impersonal and interchangeable as the Starbucks outlets so prominently featured in You’ve Got Mail, but also a mess of questionable class and gender politics.
Indeed, while Ephron may be a liberal by Beverly Hills standards (she lives on the Upper West Side and she thinks books are good, especially at a discount), she also plays by antiquated rules. The Ephronian philosophy is neatly summed up by John Travolta’s angel in Michael: “I invented marriage. Before that you should have seen it. Everybody was mixed up, they didn’t know what to do.” Ephron may claim inspiration from 1930s comedies, but her true model is 1950s Hollywood— in her world, men pick up the tab while women pick up the pieces. Classic screwball comedies fed on sex and class antagonisms, but Ephron’s own starry-eyed formula precludes conflict: one minute Meg Ryan sets up a picket line in front of the competition, the next she’s a spineless waif who makes googly eyes at the man who just wrecked her life.
While Ephron thinks of love as being governed by fate, her characters are actually compulsive neurotics who hire detectives to spy on the object of their obsessions (Sleepless) or ruthless robber barons who manipulate the women they desire into romance (Mail)— and these are the nice ones. Hallmark symbolism abounds, as well as endless references to “magic.” But in Ephron’s case, magic is merely a way to have two people fall in love without needing to endow them with actual personalities. (The only genuine example of magic in Mail is when Meg Ryan’s AOL mailbox turns up empty instead of revealing 10 spam messages from firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In You’ve Got Mail, the audience has seen Tom’s character bonding with his philandering father, and knows what’s in store for Meg: in 10 years, he’ll dump her for the au pair. But in the Ephron universe, Meg will undoubtedly bounce right back up, resuming a happy life with another jerk. Chances are the song playing in the background will be “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”