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As mainstream American filmmaking inexorably declines, Hollywood has come to resemble a recycling plant. Material that was once fresh and vital enters the reprocessor and emerges as anesthetizing sludge. Last week, we had Gus Van Sant’s gratuitous replication of Psycho; this week, writer-director Nora Ephron’s desecration of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic, The Shop Around the Corner.
Because I treasure Lubitsch’s film as the warmest, funniest, most elegantly constructed romantic comedy I’ve ever seen, Ephron’s witless remake amounts to a personal affront. Shot for under $500,000 in 28 days on the MGM back lot, The Shop Around the Corner is a beguiling, timeless picture refreshingly devoid of the sniggery sexual innuendo once hailed as “the Lubitsch touch.” Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay, freely adapted from an obscure Hungarian play, is seamlessly crafted; it has subsequently served as the basis for the 1949 Judy Garland movie In the Good Old Summertime and the 1963 Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick Broadway musical She Loves Me.
In Lubitsch’s working-class comedy, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play squabbling clerks in a Budapest gift shop. Neither knows that they are also lonely-hearts pen pals who share their secret hopes and dreams in letters. This love/hate relationship evolves against a background of other stories involving the emporium’s staff: the aging owner cuckolded by his vain, faithless wife; an oily ladykiller salesman; a timid, contented family man; a soft-spoken spinster cashier; and a wisecracking errand boy. Raphaelson’s dialogue and plotting are unparalleled in their rhythmic cadences and harmonic repetitions. A running gag about a music box not only produces a half-dozen laughs but also deftly reveals the personalities and motives of all the shop’s characters.
Although as smoothly spun and weightless as silk, The Shop Around the Corner does not shrink from probing the dark side of human experience. The would-be lovers have no families and can only afford to live in rented rooms. A secondary character is a kept man; another attempts suicide. In one of the rare American films to acknowledge the oppressiveness of labor, Lubitsch sagely shows how co-workers form surrogate families, evolving the same support systems and dysfunctions that blood ties provide. The film also offers some penetrating insights into the psychology of romantic and erotic love. The ongoing antagonism of the central couple is depicted as a manifestation of repressed sexual attraction. Above all, Lubitsch and Raphaelson seize upon a rarely articulated but profound theme: the difficulty we experience in attempting to know one another. Stewart observes, “People seldom go to the trouble of scratching the surface of things to find out the inner truth.” To which Sullavan snippily (and immortally) replies, “I wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, because I know exactly what I would find. A handbag instead of a heart, a suitcase instead of a soul, and instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighterthat doesn’t work.”
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The Shop Around the Corner is impeccably cast and performed. Even after a dozen viewings, I’m unable to watch the final scenein which Stewart can no longer conceal his love for Sullavan and begins reciting one of the ardent letters he’s anonymously written to herwithout experiencing chills and growing misty-eyed. Because Lubitsch’s movie takes place during the holiday season and ends on Christmas Eve, it has become one of television’s perennial year-end attractions. You’d be wiser to keep an eye out for its annual airings than waste time and money on Ephron’s mirthless, soulless, bloated remake, which runs nearly a half-hour longer than the terse original.
Co-scripting with her sister Delia, Nora Ephron updates the epistolary mainspring of Raphaelson’s screenplay by altering the mode of communication from snail mail to e-mail, the only promising idea in a swamp of miscalculations. The would-be lovers are no longer impoverished co-workers but self-employed yuppies who live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This up-marketing allows Ephron to solicit lucrative product placementsStarbucks, AOL, Zabar’swhile diminishing viewer empathy with the privileged characters. (In the original, we root for their relationship to work out because their lives are otherwise so barren.)
Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox, mastermind of a book superstore chain that threatens the survival of independent booksellers. Meg Ryan is Kathleen Kelly, proprietor of a modest children’s bookshop started by her mother. Both live in snazzy digshe in a high-rise co-op, she in a spacious brownstone apartmentand each has a lover: respectively, a crass publishing-house editor (Parker Posey) and a vain newspaper columnist (Greg Kinnear). Each feels a certain void in life, which leads, after meeting in an AOL chat room, to an ongoing correspondence. Their subsequent, unwitting real-life encounters, however, are acrimonious, with Kathleen blaming the corporate marketing whiz for the collapse of her business. By the fade-out, hidden identities are revealed and, inevitably, True Love prevails, though the question of Kathleen’s future professionthe now-shuttered bookstore was the most important thing in her lifeis left begging. Well, a man is all a woman really needs to fulfill her, right?
Ephron, who is not overburdened with original ideas, has now written and/or directed the same plotmade-for-each-other lovers who fail to embrace their fate until the movie’s conclusionthree times: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and this clunker. (Reinforcing the sense of déjà vu, Ryan has starred in all three, and Hanks in two.) Something of a rerun herselfNora is the daughter of Hollywood screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephronshe’s so enervated by this material that she can’t come up with a single snappy joke or palpable emotion in two wearisome hours. Instead, she trots out a gallery of secondary characters who have little identity beyond their names and whose sole function is to kill time until the predestined happy ending. These include, in addition to Kinnear and Posey, Dabney Coleman and John Randolph as Joe’s eccentric relatives, and Steve Zahn, Jean Stapleton, and Heather Burns as Kathleen’s employees. (To keep things adorable, there are also a photogenic dog and a gaggle of moppets, including one who bellows a chorus of “Tomorrow.”) Ephron’s writing is so flatthe dead scenes pile up like plague corpsesthat she resorts to superimposing songs (“I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” “Lonely at the Top,” “Over the Rainbow”) on the images to stimulate feelings she’s otherwise incapable of evoking.
The middle-aged leads, cast as characters at least a decade too young for them to portray convincingly, do little to dispel the torpor. Perky as a coffee pot, Ryan is, as usual, nice to look at, but her grating performance consists entirely of twinkles and gummy grins. If cute were criminalized, her work as Kathleen would place her on the FBI’s Most Wanted roster. Conversely, Hanks is uncharacteristically glum, perhaps depressed by the hollowness of his role, and looks unwell, waxen and puffy. The sexual energy generated by this pair wouldn’t power a nursery nightlight.
Raphaelson, who also wrote Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait for Lubitsch and Suspicion for Hitchcock, once told me that The Shop Around the Corner was set in Hungary because the emotions it portrays are too delicate for the brashness and speed of American life. Ephron brusquely solves the problem of Americanizing the narrative by eliminating those emotions, and scuttles the original’s social concerns by upgrading the characters from laborers to conspicuous consumers. (You’ve Got Mail sets a new screen record for depicting the preparation and ingestion of esoteric coffee blends.) Everybody in this picture is a winner, but moviegoers hoping for a few laughs and tears are out of luck.
Vinegary Pauline Kael, dubbed by Norman Mailer “our quintessential cruet,” considers The Shop Around the Corner “as close to perfection as a movie made by mortals is ever likely to be.” Bypass Ephron’s moribund remake and use the money you’ve saved to rent or buy a copy of Lubitsch’s masterpiece for a holiday treat guaranteed to make your spirit soar. CP