Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When Harry Met Sally...

When Harry Met Sally…
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Back in my college days, I lived in a suite. Of girls. At one point, there were 8 of us sharing very cramped quarters. Despite the inevitable drama (there was one vicious knock down fight over – get this – cake frosting), there was also a LOT of romantic comedy-watching. A LOT. It was pretty much the only genre of film that was ever on our tiny little television. I think it was during this phase of my life that I started to see the cracks in the genre due to my overexposure to it. I also distinctly remember watching When Harry Met Sally… during that time in my life and starting to see just how great a romcom it is.

Harry (Crystal) needs a ride to New York from Chicago, and Sally (Ryan) has a car. They’ve never met, but they share a contentious cross country trip then part ways. Five years later, they bump into one another on a plane trip and continue to bicker, then part ways again. Five years later AGAIN, they meet up, but this time, become friends. And, because this is a romantic comedy, the friendship starts to build and evolve into something more.

The two central characters need to work in order for the film to work, and blessedly, they do. When I rewatched this, at first I was offput by Crystal’s Harry. In the beginning of the film, he’s a real asshole. Full of himself, stubborn, convinced he has all the answers. I started to wince a little, thinking that I had somehow misjudged the film initially; was I really going to have to watch a movie where such a jerk is the romantic hero? No. Harry’s character changes over the film, and by the time we get to the point where he becomes a serious romantic possibility for Sally, he has mellowed with time, gotten softer, less harsh, more palatable. He bluntly apologizes to her in one scene about comments he made earlier. It’s a nice evolution.

My favorite performance, though, is Meg Ryan’s portrayal of Sally. Perhaps it’s because I’m turning 33 this year, but the fact that Sally is close to my age, I felt a great connection with her character. I like how Ryan metamorphosed Sally from an overly confident, snobbish 21-year-old, a girl who thinks she has everything figured out, to a confident yet slightly demoralized 31-year-old woman. The older Sally can admit that yeah, maybe she doesn’t have any idea what she’s doing. She is most certainly strong-minded and quirky, but she has also calmed down over time, mellowing with age just like Harry.

Nora Ephron’s script is fantastic. There are so many great quippy lines, eminently quotable. “Helen Hillson, she’s a lawyer, she’s keeping her name,” all delivered in response to the question “Who is she?” makes me giggle. “Baby Fish Mouth!” is a classic example of the verbal diarrhea that comes from playing any “blurt it out” game. Beyond the one-liners, though, Ephron laid the groundwork for a generation of relationship standards. The way Harry talks about relationships (“I never pick a woman up from the airport,” “Men and women can never be friends,” “Do you still sleep on the same side of the bed?”, “You’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance,” “Oh, I went to bed with her”) spawned nearly every “single in the city” movie or television show that came after it in the nineties. There are shades of Seinfeld’s view on relationships here, as well as Sex In the City’s. I won’t be as ostentatious as to claim that those two shows are direct offspring of this film, but they are, at the very least, distant cousins.

A nice little touch that I love from Ephron’s scripts is her allusion to classic Hollywood (An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle, The Godfather in You’ve Got Mail). In this film, the big one that is discussed is the relationship between Rick, Ilsa, and Victor Laszlo in Casablanca; a worthy choice, there’s a lot to talk about there. There’s another one, though, one that made me smile in how small and offhand it was, and yet it was definitely there. Did you miss it? Sally corrects Marie (Fisher) when Marie misquotes Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes when they are in Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers. Having now seen these classic films, I like it when a movie is referential to “those that came before it.”

New York City is my favorite city in the world. Granted, I haven’t done a lot of travelling so that might not be saying much, but I have been to NYC several times and I never get tired of it. When Harry Met Sally… is a fantastic Manhattan movie. Rob Reiner clearly loves New York City as well, because he shows us a gorgeous, glorious, beautiful Manhattan here, bathed in amber sunlight. This is a romantic comedy, so we are never shown dark, gritty, dangerous Manhattan, but I think I’m okay with that. Romantic comedies are, fundamentally, modern fairy tales, so it makes sense to set them in fantasy lands. Harry Connick Jr.’s soundtrack of classic standards helps to reinforce the idealized world of the film. (And really, if you want to talk fantasy land, look no further than Harry’s ridiculously spacious loft apartment.)

I love a good drama. It’s probably my favorite genre of film. But every now and then, I just want to watch two people fall in love and have a happy ending guaranteed. Every now and then, I want to get emotionally invested without being punched in a gut by a film. Every now and then, I want to turn my brain off just a little and be entertained. When Harry Met Sally… fulfills all of those desires. It’s great, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s entertaining. It works. It’s easily one of the finest romantic comedies ever made.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10


  1. I completely agree on this being one of the best romantic comedies ever made. And since I always want to be friends with a woman first before maybe falling in love with her, this movie satisfied that fantasy for me (when the reality is that once you're in a woman's "friend zone" there is pretty much no coming back from that.)

    Because of this I also loved the central debate of "can a man and woman be really good friends without sex coming between them?" What amused me some is I saw both men and women come out of the same movie feeling it showed them two different things - two things that just happened to mirror Harry's and Sally's opinions. She believes men and women can be just friends and he doesn't. A number of women I knew who saw this movie said afterwards that the movie *did* show that men and women could be friends without sex, while men I knew said afterwards that the movie showed that they couldn't (since sex and romance did result.)

    1. You know, I've thought about that too, that issue of "CAN men and women really be friends?" And as weird as it is, I understand both interpretations of the film. I keep *wanting* the movie to say that men and women can be just friends, but ultimately, I think you can't ignore the fact that, HELLO, they sleep together and, well, are no longer just friends. Maybe it's because the movie does such a nice job focusing on the friendship for such a long time, and we're not used to seeing that in films. Normally, two characters meet then jump straight into bed together. In this film, though, we actually get to watch the building of the friendship.

  2. My favorite aspect of this film is that the characters are completely believable. So often in romantic comedies (and really, comedies of any stripe), the characters are "funny" first, characters second. This generally means that they aren't so much characters as a bundle of quirks and traits and extreme behaviors. But I buy Harry and Sally as people. They have enough uniqueness to be believable, but not so much that they turn into wacky sitcom neighbors. That, more than anything, sells the film.

    But my favorite part of this one is still the old couples.

    1. I realize now I said that two things were my favorite part of this movie. So...my favorite part of the plot is the believability of the characters, but my favorite part of the entire package are the short moments with the old couples talking about how they met. See? I didn't contradict my stupid self.

    2. @SJHoneywell - nice save. (I really like the old couples, too, especially with the payoff of these scenes at the end of the film.)

    3. Steve, I admit, I did notice you had two favorite things. That's OK, you're allowed to like more than one thing about this movie.

    4. @original comment, I definitely agree that Harry and Sally feel real, but I do think the supporting characters are more caricature. I mean honestly, Carrie Fisher is a "Seinfeld"-esque supporting character.

    5. I agree. The scene where she hooks up with Bruno Kirby lacks only the "doodly-doodly-doop!" noise for it to be straight out of a sitcom.