Tom Hanks Plays A Despicable Character In A Fan-Favorite Movie Now On Netflix

Tom Hanks finally succeeded at playing an utterly hateable character in this much-beloved movie now streaming on Netflix.

By Nathan Kamal | Published

tom hanks

To say that Tom Hanks is beloved is like saying that the Atlantic Ocean is big, wet, and full of lost undersea kingdoms. He has rightfully been one of the world’s most popular and acclaimed actors for decades and has skillfully managed to portray himself as a casual everyman who is just like the audience the entire time. For the most part, when Hanks tried to step out of that role, audiences either rejected it or reacted with bewilderment. It is not that most people hated Tom Hanks as an emotionally distant 1930s mob hitman in Road to Perdition. It is not that people could not stand him as an amoral lecher of a Congressman in Charlie Wilson’s War. Audiences could even clench their teeth and bear through the motion-capture nightmare of The Polar Express. But it is not what people want from Tom Hanks. They want friendly, relatable, doing-his-best Tom Hanks. Perhaps the only time he managed to thread the needle and play a reprehensible person and still draw in audiences is the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, which just started streaming on Netflix. 

You've got mail tom hanks

You’ve Got Mail stars Tom Hanks as Joe Fox, the face and guiding force behind Fox Books, a Barnes and Nobles/Borders-type superstore. He stars opposite frequent co-star Meg Ryan, who stars as Kathleen Kelly, the second-generation proprietor of a Manhattan independent bookstore called The Shop Around The Corner. The central hook of the plot is simple: via the then-new technology of AOL email, the two have virtually met and are falling in love. However, in real life, Fox Books is ruthlessly running The Shop Around The Corner out of business, and they despise each other. Even as they come into increasingly personal conflict with each other, with Meg Ryan organizing protests against the superstore and Tom Hanks letting the power of his monolithic business bulldoze her, they grow closer. 

You've got mail tom hanks

It is an eventually sweet story that eventually ends with a romantic embrace, and both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan bring their A-games. However, it is not as simple of a story as one might expect. For one thing, both Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are awful people. They both see themselves as the hero of the story and justify their enmity toward each other accordingly. Fox sees himself as part of his family business and simply satisfying consumer demand; after all, if customers did not want to buy books from him, get coffee at the in-store kiosks, and sit in those big armchairs, they don’t have to. But he is unquestionably a rich man destroying small businesses to get richer. And Meg Ryan considers herself the voice of the common people, fighting against a soulless corporation. However, she doesn’t seem to much care about this until her own business is in danger and then treats it as an urgent societal ill. She persuades her journalist boyfriend (a delightfully pretentious Greg Kinnear) into writing an op-ed on her behalf, knowing full well it is a conflict of interest. She organizes protests against Fox Books, but it’s not like she’s a charity organization or a non-profit; she just wants to keep her own job.

You've got mail

Over the course of You’ve Got Mail, we see Tom Hanks put down Meg Ryan with verbal barb after verbal barb. We see him use his movie-star charm to circumvent the rules in ways that Meg Ryan pointedly can’t. From what we see of Joe Fox, his closest and only friend is an employee (Dave Chappelle) whose main job seems to be hanging out with him. And worst of all, when Tom Hanks discovers that his online love is his real-life adversary, he does not tell her and uses the opportunity to mock her to her face. 

But that is a key scene in You’ve Got Mail because it is clear that Tom Hanks is being spiteful out of confusion and uncertainty. He does not know what to do with the information that the person he has been falling in love with is the person who goes on the local news to talk trash about him, and like a not very good person, he reacts by lashing out. However, Meg Ryan is no better. Taking the online Hanks’ advice on how to deal with an adversary, she unleashes a personal, deeply hurtful attack on him, knowing full well that she is not speaking to Fox Books, the corporation, but Joe Fox, a person. It is a master class of a scene from both of them, highlighting just how awful they are being to each other, while still not being able to break their connection. And because he is a bad person, Tom Hanks uses the destruction of Meg Ryan’s business and vulnerability to become her friend in person while still communicating with her in his online persona. It is borderline sociopathic.

You've got mail Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks had twice attempted to play an upper-class jerk before, both with terrible results. The 1985 Peace Corps comedy Volunteers, in which he played a Yale blue blood with a Mid-Atlantic accent stuck in Thailand, had come and gone and is little remembered now. The 1990 would-be prestige drama Bonfire of the Vanities disastrously cast him as a Wall Street bond trader scumbag and became one of the most infamous box office flops of all time. But he managed to make it work with You’ve Got Mail by not shying away from his legendary affability with Joe Fox, but using it as just one more weapon in a corporate shark’s arsenal. 

A large part of Tom Hanks’ third-time-around success can be attributed to the director Nora Ephron. She co-wrote the script with her frequent collaborator and sister Delia in part because of her love for the  1940 film The Shop Around the Corner (itself an adaption of the 1937 play Parfumerie) and her fascination with the burgeoning online world. Ephron’s unmatched ability to balance heartwarming sweetness and utterly cynical acid humor is at its best with You’ve Got Mail. While telling us a story about two terrible people played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, it is also slyly commenting on the corporate destruction of small businesses, the changes to New York City in the 1990s, paralleling how online chatrooms can mirror the small communities of places like her beloved Upper West Side, and throwing in some good comedic moments from ringers like Greg Kinnear, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn, and Jean Stapleton. 

You've got mail Tom Hanks

You’ve Got Mail rounded out the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan trilogy of Joe Versus the Volcano and Sleepless in Seattle. It eventually grossed a ridiculous $250 million worldwide, while receiving mixed reviews for its perceived sentimentality and AOL product placement. It is now considered one of the finest films of the romantic comedy genre, as well as one of the most bittersweet. And best of all, it finally let Tom Hanks succeed as a jerk.