Monday, August 13, 2012

The King of All Rom-Coms

Film: When Harry Met Sally
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

There was a moment in American film when Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart and the go-to girl for romantic comedies. It happened at some point in the middle of When Harry Met Sally, which was a star-making turn for a whole bunch of people. It was certainly Meg Ryan’s coming out party, reinforced Billy Crystal’s stature in general, cemented Rob Reiner as one of the better directors of the age, and gave us great supporting roles for Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher.

Harry Burns (Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) meet when they drive from Chicago to New York together after college. There’s no attraction between them and they’re both fine with this. Harry is of the opinion that men and women can’t be friends because there’s always the question of sex cropping up between them. When they get to New York, they part, thinking that this part of their life is over.

They meet again, only vaguely recognizing each other. As the story continues, Harry and Sally start finding themselves wandering into each other’s worlds more and more. Sally has a long term relationship that falls apart abruptly. Harry’s marriage splinters around the same time. They gravitate toward each other for mutual comfort and camaraderie, and become, despite Harry’s pronouncement during the drive to New York, good friends.

In one of the better sequences of the film, they attempt to jump start each other’s love lives by going on a double blind date. Sally has set up Harry with her friend Marie (Carrie Fisher) while Harry brings along his friend Jess (Bruno Kirby) for Sally. Rather than the intended effect, Jess and Marie immediately hit it off, move in together, and eventually get married.

Of course, sex does rear its ugly head when Sally’s former boyfriend announces his marriage and Harry goes to comfort her. One thing leads to another and it causes an immediate split between them—neither is happy with the sudden turn that the relationship has taken. The rest of the film is, more or less, the two of them parsing out precisely what has happened between them and determining what to do next.

All in all, the plot of When Harry Met Sally isn’t that different from a lot of romantic comedies. It’s hardly a spoiler to suggest that the two of them will end up together. This is, after all, a romantic comedy, which means we’re all due for a happy ending. It’s not evident at first that we will come to like these people by the end of the film, but when the end of the film does come, we want them together as a couple. They’re a cute couple. They’re great together. They’re funny and they aggravate each other in entertaining ways.

So it’s not about the plot, which is ultimately pretty standard stuff. Boy meets girl, boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. There’s nothing new here in terms of story. Where this film really excels is in virtually every other aspect. For starters, it’s a sparkling script filled with marvelous off-hand comments and observations. There are great scenes here that play very much like the real thing, perhaps a pushed just a touch harder for comedy. Harry tells Jess about his separation from his wife while at a football game, opening his heart about his life falling apart, but both men being conscious enough of their surroundings to take part in the wave is a perfect example. It’s funny and at the same time tragic and heartbreaking.

The most famous moment in the film is Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in the deli, and if any romantic comedy can be said to have “a scene” that everyone can immediately reference, it’s this scene in this film. It’s a great little moment, one that despite my not having seen this before tonight I knew pretty much by heart (including the follow up classic line, “I’ll have what she’s having” spoken by Reiner’s mother Estelle). This film may be the modern genesis of the female rom-com stereotype character, though. Meg Ryan’s Sally is, as Harry says, someone who thinks she is low maintenance but is really high maintenance. Any time she orders anything in a restaurant, we get a glimpse of exactly how particular she is. And yet she’s entirely believable. Harry, similarly, has his own hangups and weird theories (my favorite being that hieroglyphics are merely a long comic strip about a character name Sphinxy).

The sweetest touch, though, is the clips of old couples talking in front of the camera about how they met. These are couples married for multiple decades, people who have truly grown old together talking about this love that has endured through years and trials and problems and joys. It’s sort of unfair, because it’s really hard to dislike a film that contains something so damn sweet.

When Harry Met Sally is a hard movie to dislike. Reiner fired on all cylinders in making it, Nora Ephron never wrote a better script, and it might well be the best performances of both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. After this film, Ryan started teaming up with Tom Hanks for the rom-com of the month club, but at least she started from a place of prominence. Bluntly, if romantic comedies could be written this well, acted this believably, and directed this skillfully, it wouldn’t matter how much the same story was recycled over and over. They wouldn’t be the poor stepchild genre they are.

Why to watch When Harry Met Sally: You could do a lot worse with a rom-com.
Why not to watch: Most other rom-coms suck in comparison.


  1. This is such a wonderful film! I had forgotten about the clips with the sweet old couples. Now I really want to see it again. Not because of the fake orgasm scene, which I've watched too many times by now, it's starting to get worn out. But because of everything else. It's definitely one of my favourite rom-coms ever, alongside with Amelie. I particularly love how it's stretched out over time. A film about grown-ups falling in love, not teenagers. A sweet change.

  2. I love the scene where Harry blows up after seeing Helen and says they'll be fighting over everything even "...this stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table!"

  3. Oh, romcoms. Why you so crappy? Not this one, though. It sparkles. I don't think I've ever seen Billy Crystal in a more likeable role. Nice to know that guys enjoy this one too.

  4. This was a difficult film to write about, mostly because it's so good start to finish. There are plenty of things here that made me smile. Watching Meg Ryan produce the world's most convoluted apple pie order gave me a laugh because, well, that hits home. My wife orders the same way.

  5. This is one of my all time favorite romantic comedies. Part of this is due to the fact that I want to be friends with a woman before I fall in love with her, which as you may suspect has made things complicated for me.

    I recently saw some young bloggers say they hated the scenes with the old couples because they were "stupid". I liked them a lot, especially with the payoff of the final couple scene. I'm glad to see that you liked them, too.

    1. I'm not sure how someone could genuinely dislike this film. It's so good top to bottom.

  6. After I saw Wall Street and Pretty Woman in the last few weeks of May, When Harry Met Sally showed up on the Ovation channel, so I DVRed it and watched it almost immediately. So May has been the month for "Very Popular 1980s Movies from the 1001 List that I should have Seen 30 Years Ago."

    "When Harry Met Sally" worked for me a lot better than "Wall Street" and a heckuva lot better than "Pretty Woman."

    I really don't remember why I didn't go see it in 1989. Did I already hate romantic comedies so much back then?

    Everything in this movie works so well, including the chutzpah shown by Reiner as be successfully passes off Bruno Kirby (whose character seems functionally literate at best) as a writer so good that Carrie Fisher quotes his own article to him at dinner.

    1. I think it's really hard to not like this movie. You have to work at it for it not to be something entertaining at the very least. I'm really not a fan of the genre, but just about everything here works for me, including the characters, who are usually the biggest stumbling block in rom-coms.