December 18, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The possibility that Tom Hanks is the anonymous correspondent with whom you have been exchanging intimate e-mails for weeks while sitting on the couch in your sweatpants, eating nonfat Haagen-Dazs out of the carton, is the reason why Internet services like America Online are a multibillion-dollar phenomenon, and why the romantic fabric of America today is woven with modem connections.

Actually, the anonymous correspondent is more likely to be Bill Maher. But it’s the dream of Hanks that keeps hope alive, and keeps You’ve Got Mail alive, too. Nora Ephron’s mightily unsteady, ultimately seductive romantic comedy seduces in huge part because Hanks, a 42-year-old Californian, is so effectively, endearingly, light-footedly convincing as a New Yorker in his indeterminate 30s. He’s Joe Fox, the attractive, wealthy, hard-charging owner of the kind of book-superstore chain that regularly puts small neighborhood bookshops out of business. And what Joe doesn’t realize is that the anonymous woman on the other end of the blinking cursor — the unknown online enchantress whose every thought is far more captivating than any Ephronish barb falling from the sharp tongue of his aggressive editor girlfriend (Parker Posey) — is Kathleen Kelly, the gentle owner of one of those very shops (a children’s literary Eden, no less) he likes to devour. And that they live in the same adorable, highly cultured Upper West Side neighborhood that Nora Ephron lives in. And that the e-mail enchantress is Meg Ryan! (In real life, she’s more likely to be Courtney Love.)

You’ve Got Mail steals from the best. ”Parfumerie,” Miklos Laszlo’s charming 1937 story about a Budapest shop girl who doesn’t realize that her lonely hearts pen pal is a fellow employee, was first turned into The Shop Around the Corner (1940), one of the most irresistibly beguiling romantic comedies ever made, by master beguiler Ernst Lubitsch. (The story also inspired Judy Garland’s film In the Good Old Summertime and the Broadway musical She Loves Me.) Lubitsch, of course, cast Jimmy Stewart opposite Margaret Sullavan. So right away, there’s a shimmer of gold dust on Ephron’s project, since Hanks’ appealingly decent persona is so constantly compared to Stewart’s.

But, pretty as it is, You’ve Got Mail also frequently veers from that great adaptation. For one thing, the director, collaborating with her sister Delia Ephron on the script, can’t resist making the story something weightier than Lubitsch’s gossamer romance. Addicted to social satire, she digresses to comment on the culture of laptops, of bookstore economics, of literary cocktail chat, even of attempting to pay with a credit card in the cash-only aisle of the famous foodie heaven Zabar’s. And with so many pauses to toss off zingers, the pleasurable build-up to the satisfying clinch is thrown off-kilter; Ephron the writer is still in better shape than Ephron the director, who could have used someone to tell her, ”Funny! But lose the scene.” We know Kathleen is meant for Joe, but the entire last quarter of the movie drags while Ephron juggles her arch, throwaway subplots: Kathleen’s boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) is a vain newspaper columnist; the old bookkeeper in her shop (Jean Stapleton) once had an affair with a man who ”ran Spain”; Joe’s father (Dabney Coleman, marvelously dry as zwieback) dates a string of young girlfriends, etc. (The rest of the supporting cast — including Dave Chappelle as a superstore executive — is uniformly terrific.)

Then there’s the Sleepless in Seattle conundrum: Since Hanks and Ryan first clicked so lucratively for Ephron as circling soul mates five years ago, she is, understandably, loath to mess with the formula too much. And this doesn’t leave much room for freshness. Joe may represent corporate greed, but he’s also, after all, Tom Hanks, who eventually feels truly sorry about the business hardship he has caused. Kathleen may run her own independent enterprise, but she is, finally, twinkly, nose-crinklingly cute Meg Ryan, who, in the morning after her boyfriend goes to work, takes perky-pooky baby steps in her pj’s and woolly socks to read her e-mail from the most ideal fella a lonely AOL user could ever imagine. (You know she’s reading because her eyes pop and she grins busily; Ryan never does anything quietly, not even read to herself.)

Hanks, though, he reads like real men read (alert, but available to his dog). As Joe, he writes like women can only wish men would write, men who know there’s more to online seduction than openers like ”What R U wearing?” For giving millions of electronic-letter writers hope, alone, this valentine to modern love in New York deserves the letter B.

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