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[whitespace] Tom Hanks & Meg Ryan
Warm, Wet Towels: Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are America's sexless sweethearts in 'You've Got Mail.'

'A Simple Plan' and 'You've Got Mail' live down to the Hollywood maxim 'Money is not for poor people'

By Richard von Busack

ARE THERE SUCH things as hearing protectors for beekeepers? I mean, how do they keep the buzz out of their ears? The new films A Simple Plan and You've Got Mail positively vibrate with advance praise. Roger Ebert has likened A Simple Plan to Dostoyevsky (possibly Dostoyevsky's forgotten classic The Treasure of the Ural Madre); Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly has compared Sarah Mitchell, the character played by Bridget Fonda in A Simple Plan, to Lady Macbeth.

The much-lauded Tom Hanks, star of You've Got Mail, should field yet more unwarranted comparisons to Jimmy Stewart. Hanks radiates Oscar buzz, a more insistent form of your ordinary buzz. Maybe drone is the word. No one has yet compared Mail co-star Meg Ryan to any great figure from art or literature. Insert your buzz here.

In A Simple Plan, feed-store clerk Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) is out for a ride in the snow with his no-account brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and Jacob's pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), the town drunk. The trio accidentally discovers a wrecked private plane loaded with $4.4 million in cash.

Hank suggests that the money should be stowed away for a few months, in hopes that wh ever goes looking for it will be thrown off the trail. Since Hank is the smartest of the three, he gets custody of the money. Jacob's and Lou's anxiety complicates matters, however, and a passing witness is killed during one of the men's trips to the wrecked plane. The secret is soon blown.

Director Sam Raimi was a partner on several films by the Coen brothers. Here, Raimi delivers his first prestige movie, perhaps in hopes of garnering the same attention the Coens received for Fargo. If snow equals seriousness, Raimi has succeeded. A Simple Plan is certainly the snowiest movie since Fargo.

Yet these snowscapes of Minnesota don't have the impressiveness of the landscapes in Fargo. Fargo gave us visions of empty space as a reminder of the difficulty of making a moral choice; apparently neither good nor evil could make an imprint on that frozen white desert. But Raimi's prosaic close-ups of crows and foxes in A Simple Plan spell out the film's moral lesson about greed with Aesopian simplicity.

It's an early sign of a film gone wrong when Sarah Mitchell complains about having to work eight hours a day in the town's library for the rest of her life. How many rural libraries are open 40 hours a week? Bad guesses like this add up to an unreal look at country life.

Fonda is miscast, even with an inexpensive brunette hair style and a rubber pregnancy belly strapped to her lean midriff. Paxton, a dry, witty actor, looks like a star in a political TV commercial about a son of the soil hitting hard times.

The unreal backdrops match the poorly chosen cast. The story, a foolproof scam that gets fouled up by greed and mistrust, depends on two things: either a society so rotten that the heroes can't help their desperation or the smooth-running machinery of a tricky plot.

The Mitchells' expensive-looking house--a shack by Hollywood standards but still very comfortable for a small town--doesn't indicate why Sarah is so desperate about her future. And Hank's two hard-drinking accomplices, Lou and Briscoe, never get past the caricature stage, despite Thornton's lunge for pathos with his joke-shop fake teeth. (Breathes there an actor who needs fake teeth less than the barn-door-broad Thornton?)

And A Simple Plan isn't especially clever. The plot machinery looks as if it's been left out in the rain. The film's core is a rusty sermon on the unimportance of money compared to happiness. The too-simple ending is just another insulting reminder of the old Hollywood maxim "Money is not for poor people."

THE ATTITUDE that You've Got Mail evinces toward the cost of living is the standard romantic-movie view. Money is not even an issue. The poorest people in the film live in rent-controlled Manhattan apartments so that we won't worry when they drop out of sight midway through the story after losing their jobs.

It's hard to get mad at You've Got Mail's underlying arrogance, since at least scriptwriters Nora and Delia Ephron included the line about rent control to soothe the audience's conscience. Other filmmakers might have dropped the out-of-work clerks without further word, as losers who were cluttering up the story.

The source material for You've Got Mail is the peerless 1940 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (playing in revival at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto this week). The small bookstore where much of the action unfolds in You've Got Mail is named The Shop Around the Corner, in honor of the earlier, better film.

The beloved Upper West Side Manhattan bookshop has a long history. The lonely Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who works there, is carrying on an anonymous cyber-correspondence using AOL. Her email pen pal, unbeknown to her, turns out to be Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), heir to the Fox and Sons chain of supersized bookstores. Competition from the new branch of Fox and Sons endangers The Shop Around the Corner. Fox, realizing that his pen pal is also his noisiest critic, keeps up his disguise.

There isn't much spark in this romance, but who goes to see a Hanks/Ryan romance to get their hearts started? The two have all the friction of warm, wet towels. Hanks is co-starring with a pooch again (an Irish setter named Brinkley), and he is one of the only actors alive with the willpower to steal scenes from a dog.

Ryan has been America's sweetheart for years because of her cotton-pajama niceness. She's Mary Pickford 2000. (In one scene, Kelly remembers waltzing with her mother as a child, seeing herself as a double-exposure phantom.) Ryan tries to fight the sexlessness of her character with certain gestures--smoothing her blouse as if to remind the audience that she has a body--but the prudish script keeps her in her pinafores and pjs.

In one correspondence scene, Kelly apologizes for an outburst, sending Fox an email message: "I was cruel, and I'm never cruel." Those words explain why I've never found Ryan half as interesting as Parker Posey (who has a smaller part in You've Got Mail) or Christina Ricci, Thandie Newton or any number of other female actors who are capable of a little cruelty. Just to be kinder later on, you understand.

THE EASY WAY to critique You've Got Mail is to say that what's good isn't original and that what's not original isn't any good. But that's too easy. You've Got Mail borrows enough from its source to build a clever structure. And the film is an improvement over the Hanks/Ryan/Ephron collaboration Sleepless in Seattle, which was also a remake and had a similar plot line and even similar comedic bits about guy-movies vs. girl-movies.

The Manhattan locations, scrubbed of anyone earning under $50,000 a year, are as appealing as only the dream of a civilized Manhattan can be. What's most interesting about You've Got Mail is its theme about the fate of the independent bookstore, stamped out of business by the big chains. Unfortunately, having grasped this nettle, the film drops it quickly.

Even after Fox and Sons squashes Kelly's little bookstore, money appears miraculously, with old-fashioned movie dispatch. Birdie (Jean Stapleton), Kelly's co-worker at the shop, turns out to be wealthy (she bought Intel at 6).

Birdie can float Kelly a loan if she needs it, but Kelly demurs; she has her savings. The elder woman, a mentor for Kelly, also implies that she had an affair with Generalissimo Franco when she was young. The heart leads us to places we wouldn't expect, even to the arms of fascists.

This bizarre reminiscence clears Kelly's conscience; her path to the zillionaire Fox is now cleared. The decision is even easier for Kathleen when her Ralph Bellamy-like boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) also departs. He was old-fashioned anyway, a New York Observer columnist who hated computers. He represents the old stodgy ways, of typewriters and little bookstores where your name is known. Or old black-and-white movies that were at least made by craftspeople who knew how to compose a shot.

Just as A Simple Plan has a haphazard, secondhand idea of working-class country life, You've Got Mail is ignorant of what work might really mean to a person. The original The Shop Around the Corner was a romance that took place in a realistic atmosphere of sales-clerking.

The workplace rivalries and tensions were as important as the romantic destiny. Hopes for perfect love were all the more sweet, contrasted with the shop where the characters spend their hours. You've Got Mail has dropped all of this: it's all about surrendering livelihood and principles for the sake of that one right man. It should be a hit, so says the buzz.

A Simple Plan (R; 121 min.), directed by Sam Raimi, written by Scott B. Smith, photographed by Alar Kivilo and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda.

You've Got Mail (PG; 115 min.), directed by Nora Ephron, written by Nora and Delia Ephron, photographed by John Lindley and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, written by Samson Raphaelson, photographed by William Daniels and starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

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From the December 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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