Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Home Video
Nora Ephron wasn't dumb. She knew how to write a story that sucks you in. And I unapologetically love You've Got Mail, but you have to admit that it has a problem that still nags at me 20 years after the movie was released.
When you cast Tom Hanks, you're pre-disposing the audience to a certain level of friendliness and familiarity toward his character. When you're Nora Ephron writing for Tom Hanks, you get a double dose of charm. As Joe Fox, he gets the hero redemption arc, because this is a rom-com after all. But does he deserve it?
There's a lot to unpack in this movie about our learned behaviors (hello, family businesses!) and our habits of staying in our lane. But for now, let's talk about the question that everyone still asks: Is Joe Fox a villain?
The biggest strike against Joe Fox is that he actively has a role in putting The Shop Around the Corner out of business. (In the play and movie on which this version of the story is based, the two protagonists are co-workers, not competitive business owners, so Ephron purposefully upped the stakes here.)
Joe claims to not believe that business can also be personal, but deep down, he has an inkling of conscience where he knows that's not true. Witness his behavior when Joe and Kathleen first meet at story hour—he deliberately lies by omission because he knows she'll hate him for the threat he poses to her business.
Once Joe's cover is blown at the party buffet, his tone changes immediately, "because I am your competition, which you know perfectly well." See? Business is personal. Also, he eats all the caviar garnish. WTF, Joe? (Also also: why is there an entire turkey at the buffet that Kathleen needs to carve on the spot?
Then there's the scene at Café Lalo where Joe makes the connection that Shopgirl and Kathleen Kelly are one and the same. Faced with this realization, does he broker a peace offering? No, his behavior is premeditated rudeness. This is the point where the villainy really comes out, and then turns weird when he decides that winning Kathleen's forgiveness and her heart is his "project."
When he brings Kathleen daisies in the aftermath of the shop closure, Joe has a chance to apologize on a personal level. Does he? Nope, he just says, "I wanted to be your friend." Then, or at any point thereafter, Joe could have chosen to get it all out on the table. He feels guilty about what he's doing—"you were expecting to see someone you trusted and met the enemy instead"—but not guilty enough to really come clean.
In the end, I think Joe Fox never reaches the level of personal growth and change to turn him from villain to hero because he never sees Kathleen as his equal. There's just too much Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in their relationship for it to sit well with me, so I can never be 100 percent Team Joe Fox by the end of the film.
Somewhere in there, Ephron was probably making a point about letting go of the superficial ideas of the people we're "supposed" to be and being brave enough to open ourselves up to new experiences, but the dynamics of power and control overshadow those life lessons.
Does it somewhat cancel things out that Patricia* is his girlfriend if she also owns those awesome Fishs Eddy espresso mugs? (I assume she bought them, since she's the one who makes coffee nervous.) Does it matter that Joe helps Kathleen with her business woes before he realizes that she and Shopgirl are the same person? Is Kathleen also complicit in the demise of The Shop Around the Corner? Questions for another installment, my friends….
*No shade thrown at Parker Posey in the role of Patricia - she is, as always, a DELIGHT and a scene-stealer here.