The last truly great romantic comedy to emerge from Hollywood – that is to say, intelligently scripted and expertly infused with a palpably engaging sexual chemistry that never talks down to its audience or makes them feel as though their emotions are being obviously manipulated, ergo, never straining for genuine laughs - Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally (1989) is a cornucopia of 'cute meets' and 'joyous defeats'. Brilliantly scripted by the late Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is deft at extolling the vices rather than the virtues of love in the Big Apple. Our protagonists are beyond the bounds of adolescent crotch-grabbing buffoonery, thank heaven. In fact, they are very much closer to the apocalyptic numeric value of ‘forty’ – the dreaded kiss of death Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) genuinely fears will befall her before the prospect of any lasting happiness with a man of her choosing. Sally is a cockeyed, and slightly obsessive/compulsive, optimist. She wants romance, and sparkle and the shared communal warmth of two bodies locked in a post-coital cuddle, uninterrupted by commitment shy phobias. On the flipside is Harry Burns (Billy Crystal); a complete cynic in matters of the heart, whose devil-may-care approach to relationships means trolling for great casual sex with whoever happens to be his gal du jour. Harry is a complete disconnect and an affront to Sally’s search for Mr. Right. Their first chance meeting, sharing a ride from Boston to New York, really doesn’t make for a great kick start to amour. Hell, it doesn’t even add up to an amicable friendship. Or so it would seem. But oh, what Ephron’s screenplay can do with an ill-suited coupling and their hilariously rocky start is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.
When it premiered, When Harry Met Sally was an immediate sensation with audiences. Twenty-six years later, it remains the best ‘contemporary’ comedy about the eternal search for passion and truth in all our lives. Without getting too philosophical, the hurdle for Sally and Harry to overcome is their shared need, yet inability, to set aside their individual incompleteness in order to be made whole as a couple. As contrived in countless movies, or finely crafted by life’s circumstances, When Harry Met Sally reminds us that no romance is a garden without weeds. Nora Ephron takes the classic ‘boy meets girl’ scenario and fashions something more enduring and meaningful from its artful clichés. It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory; a case of do or die. Except that our protagonists are unwilling to admit it to themselves. What was that about denial…not just a river in Egypt?
Yet, according to Ephron, there is more than one way to find ‘a great love’; the task as easy or as complicated as one chooses to suffer through on his/her own terms. Sally could be happy with Harry, if only she would let her rigid set of ridiculous standards slip just a little. Alas, she can only envision herself as the Suzy Cream Cheese homemaker of some blonde-haired, blue-eyed hunk – the proverbial movie-land unicorn, gleaned from countless bodice-ripping romance novels and briefly materializing in When Harry Met Sally as the nondescript but feckless ‘Joe’ (Steven Ford); undeniably good to look at, but with no fixed bearing to morph into the Paul Henreid meets Albert Schweitzer knockoff of Sally’s daydreams. Picturing the shorter, curly-haired (with receding hairline, no less) and decidedly opinionated, Harry Burns as Mr. Right will take some doing and a greater capacity for imagination.
Coincidentally, Sally is hardly Harry’s ideal mate or even a perfect date. She is, however, a true friend and confidante; something Harry’s never known and readily disavows not to exist at all. “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way,” he tries to explain. Here is a guy who, despite unprepossessing looks, still fancies himself the new young buck in town; who is arrogant enough to believe he has never had a ‘failure’ in the bedroom, leaving each and every one of his sexual conquests dreaming and screaming for more. On the surface, Harry is decidedly not the man for Sally. He likes himself far too much and thinks of women as diversions to satisfy his needs. And yet, Harry marries before Sally: to Helen (Harley Kozak), a thin-lipped, waspish and emasculating killjoy. Breaking Harry’s heart with an affair and, later, divorce – thus proves to Sally, Harry has possessed one all along, despite his braggadocios protestations to the contrary. It also does a lot to convince Sally that Harry might not be such a bad guy to have around…at least, as a friend.
Alas, fate continues to intervene with grander plans, beginning with Harry and Sally’s counterintuitive plans to inveigle one another with a ‘best friend’ going through a messy split of their own. Enter, Sally’s gal pal, Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Harry’s chum, Jess (Bruno Kirby); both successful, miserably alone and bored with life. Marie is slightly neurotic and trapped in an on again/off again affair with a married man who is destined never to leave his wife. Jess just needs someone to love. But as this reluctant foursome go out for dinner it becomes rather obvious Jess and Marie are fated to be mated to each other, barely able to wait for the check before bolting down the street into a shared cab.
When Harry Met Sally is actually less of a traditional narrative movie and more a series of semi-lucid vignettes; book-ended by an ill-fated Boston to New York trip and ending with a midnight rendezvous on New Year’s Eve in which a beleaguered Harry sincerely professes his love to the only woman who has mattered to him these many years. “I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out,” Harry begins, “I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
On the surface, there is nothing extraordinary about Ephron’s dialogue, except it seems to have been written almost by accident, expressly with Billy Crystal’s inimitable brand of rapid-fire chutzpah in mind; his cherub-esque cheeks flush from running six blocks to make this penultimate plea in person as the Waterford crystal ball is descending in Time Square. Part of When Harry Met Sally’s enduring greatness as a truly outstanding romantic comedy derives from its strangely sexualized antagonism brewing between Billy Crystal’s arrogant stag, and Meg Ryan’s wounded doe, each unable to resist the art of genuine sentiment, especially when heard coming from its most unlikely source. Harry generally criticizes Sally. Everything from her ‘high maintenance’ personality to slipshod choice in fantasy studs is fair game for Harry’s ripe barbs. She infrequently patronizes him, unable to be quite as cruel – at least, for very long. Things reach a crisis after Harry suggests their one-night stand was predicated on pity.
In between these more serious moments of exposition, Ephron frequently diverts our attentions away from the main plot by writing for Billy Crystal’s sublime predilection toward self-parody; as when he confides in Sally his reoccurring dream of partaking in a sexual Olympics where is own mother, disguised as an East German judge, fails him on technique, presumably basing her decision on his ‘dismount’; or the riotous moment when, after the dissolution of their friendship, Harry persists in telephoning and leaving semi-apologetic messages on Sally’s machine; the best of the lot suggesting only three options for their persistent stalemate: (a) Sally is not at home, (b) Sally is at home but does not want to talk to him, or (c) at home, desperate to talk, but trapped under something heavy! Crystal, a comedian known for his wry wit and possessing a rare gift for self-deprecating humor, is allowed just so much leeway in Ephron’s screenplay. A more gregarious grandstander, like the late Robin Williams, might have seized the opportunity to phase out the sensitivities in Ephron’s prose with meatier ballast dedicated exclusively to laughs. But Crystal is intuitively plugged into this material, respecting the art of subtlety and using even subtler body language to convey his inner puckishness.
In some ways, the love match in When Harry Met Sally teeters on the brink of classic byplay a la the likes of a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; Meg Ryan the perfect ‘straight man’ to Crystal’s ebullient punster. Even Ryan’s greatest triumph in the picture – the now infamously magnificent ‘public orgasm’ scene, taking place inside a crowded deli, and in which Sally proves to Harry every woman can fake it to satisfy a man’s ego, is stolen from under her with an improvisation uttered by Estelle Reiner (the director, Rob Reiner’s mother); drawing a waiter to her side immediately afterward to inquire, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Ryan’s gift to this movie is thus; that like the long-suffering Margaret Dumont, the stoic matron featured in virtually all (or at least, most of) the Marx Bros. classic comedies, she isn’t really trying to be funny – yet, as a consequence, is very hilarious indeed – adding yet another layer to Nora Ephron’s sleek and razor-sharp wit. As example; take the scene at the airport where Harry is reunited with Sally after a period of some years, suggesting, in a rather drawn out diatribe, that to take someone of the opposite sex to the airport is “clearly the beginning of a relationship”, necessitating commitment. After pontificating for several moments on the reasons, a baffled Ryan, as Sally, simply takes it all in and shakes her head in disbelief, adding “It’s amazing. You look like a normal person, but actually, you are the angel of death.”
The other ‘device’ Nora Ephron incorporates into the picture is in lieu of the traditional ‘flashback’. When Harry Met Sally is actually a tale being told to the audience in reverse. And yet we are never entirely aware of this backward unspooling of events until the very end when a wedded Harry and Sally Burns are seen snuggled together on a couch, being interviewed by an omnipotent questioner as per ‘how they met’; the device of the ‘interview’ scattered throughout the film with other aged couples from varying backgrounds telling their ‘cute meet’ stories to the audience first. These vignettes have absolutely nothing to do with the central narrative and are presented in a way that never prefigures the outcome of the main battle of the sexes taking place between Harry and Sally, presumably, in real ‘reel’ time. And yet, the genuineness in these shorts – lensed with real couples telling their life’s stories - provides the viewer with a grounded sense of focus and, almost by accident, prepares the audience for the triumph of our fictional pairing and the proverbial ‘happy ending’.
When Harry Met Sally is infectiously and refreshingly off beat; screenwriter, Nora Ephron getting top marks for never going the easy route. At virtually every turn, the movie delights with one unexpected scene after the next; the complications ensuing between these two unlikely friends cum lovers mostly enduring difficulties of their own design and friction-building resistance to admit they are falling in love in spite of themselves. Ephron draws out an increasingly obvious parallel to their mutual vulnerability; Sally's compulsiveness and Harry's flippancy, both mere masks hiding a deeper insecurity soon to be tested and test the staying power of their friendship. Yet Ephron isn’t playing the game with cards close to her chest. We are always aware these two unlucky lots will end up together before the final credits. But this really isn’t the point of the exercise – at least, not as far as Ephron is concerned. Far more satisfying to both her sensibilities as a writer and as a woman is how such perfectly suited individuals – quaintly mismatched in their misperceptions on life and love – could so readily deny and/or resist the transparency of their own compatibility for so long.
As such, the crux of the story becomes not so much ‘when’ Harry met Sally, but ‘how’ he will ultimately come to the realization his search for the perfect mate has ended. Arguably, Sally comes to this revelation much sooner than Harry; given into a moment of tearful weakness that lands the couple in bed; Harry repeating his modus operandi as he bolts for the front door just as soon as the condom has come off. This, of course, leaves Sally feeling utterly used and ashamed. It also rips a seemingly irreparable hole in their friendship. The two drift apart, the sudden separation forcing Harry to wake up to his truer feelings. The immensity of Harry’s isolation is further complicated by the perfect union Jess and Marie have forged, in essence, without even trying. Why is love so hard to come by for Harry Burns and Sally Allbright? Is it that they expect so much…or perhaps, too little from the world of possibilities and/or each other? It is this crisis of conscience that forces Harry to reconsider the real meaning of cohabitation.
The penultimate moment of realization, as Harry gallantly storms the ballroom where Sally, Marie and Jess have gathered to ring in the New Year, declaring his love, is so genuinely realized by Billy Crystal, so fraught with fearful angst, yet frustrated resolve to break the cycle of his own romantic failings, the audience cannot help but share in the release of his vexations as a tear-stained Sally forgivingly takes him back; primal doubts and all. The postscript – told by a married Harry and Sally in the present – is more than a little anticlimactic, although I suspect Ephron needed to cap off her unconventional affair de coeur with something more substantial than a kiss and freeze-frames taken on the couple’s wedding day. When Harry Met Sally is a triumph of substance as well as style, in no small part due to Rob Reiner’s superb direction; sporting a light touch and flair for the romantically absurd, likely honed during his years as an actor/comedian.
Reiner knows his way around this milieu as though it were a glorious throwback to the Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s. While another director might have exploited the vastness of Manhattan’s skyline to tell a story of grand amour set in the Big Apple, Reiner almost entirely chooses to leave New York quietly in the background; a few fleeting master shots of Central Park sporting magnificent fall colors is about all we get to anchor our understanding the whole thing is taking place in one of the most famously photographed cities in the world. It is a brilliant decision too, because we have already seen these steel and concrete vistas and inner city neon-flooded jungles of Manhattan lensed before and ad nauseam; the cozy tree-lined streets with their brownstone facades and teeming with the energy of a city that never sleeps.
No, Reiner’s visualization of New York derives from its acceptance as a life-long New Yorker; someone who finds nothing extraordinary in these exciting surroundings and is able to convey a level of lived in comfort in these protagonists, who merely slip in and out of its’ secluded doorways and taxi cabs. New York needs no embellishment to hold its own as the unauthorized third participant in any story. It simply exists as the place where anything can – and usually does – happen.
Story wise: Harry Burns and Sally Albright’s first 'cute meet' happens on a road trip to New York after their college graduation. She finds his “men and women can’t be friends” philosophy perverse and sexist. He thinks she is a real prude. Upon their arrival in Manhattan, the two part company, never suspecting they will see each other again. However, after several years, and more than a few setbacks, break ups, and misfires in their respective private lives, the two accidentally reunite on a plane ride; Harry finagling a more meaningful conversation that slowly ingratiates him to Sally. Gradually, these two sworn enemies find common ground, enough to become casual friends. Still, neither seems to think the other would be a compatible mate. Instead, they nurse one another through a series of flawed relationships, all the while steadily drawn closer to each other. Sally decides to fix Harry up with her best friend, Marie, who is involved with a married man. Harry sets Sally up with his best friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby); a single and frustrated freelance writer. The foursome meets at a fashionable restaurant, desperately/awkwardly anxious, yet still hoping for a spark of chemistry to surface. It does, except between Jess and Marie, leaving Harry and Sally to stroll off together.
Sally has a mild breakdown after she learns that her ex, Joe is engaged to someone else. In tears, she telephones Harry for solace. Instead, he comes over and the two have sex. But almost immediately, Harry regrets this moment. Sally slowly comes to this realization too, but only after Harry bluntly explains that he slept with her out of pity. But did he really? In the intervening months leading up to New Year's Eve, Sally shuns her one-time friend, forcing Harry to come to terms with his own emotions regarding their friendship. What he quickly realizes is that a future without Sally is no future at all.
It goes without saying When Harry Met Sally is a superior romantic comedy. It hits all the high notes seemingly without effort and tackles the more pressing issues of commitment and love with great humility, honesty, sincerity and heart. That it all appears so genuine is deceiving, because every last detail has been masterfully orchestrated by director, Rob Reiner, who sells this simple story as high art and comes away with a movie long to be remembered, embraced and cherished. It has already been twenty plus years and When Harry Met Sally shows virtually no signs of falling out of favor, fashion, or, for that matter, aging into obscurity. The trick and the magic lies in the intangibles and the way they come together to form and carry off its nimble premise. Ephron’s screenplay is a start; ditto for Reiner’s direction and the succinct and compelling chemistry between co-stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. But ultimately, the sheer joy of the picture registers in a very gray area caught somewhere between all of these particulars, striving for such perfection and, arguably, attaining it without ever drawing attention to the careful craftsmanship behind the laughter. It’s been a very long while since another well-intended comedy has made the grade. Most coming down the pipeline today don’t even make the effort to try.
MGM/Fox Home Video currently holds the rights to When Harry Met Sally (originally a Columbia release – odd) and their Blu-ray is very impressive. The image exhibits bold, rich and detailed colors with superb detail. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are pristine. The image is razor sharp without being digitally harsh. Grain looks like grain. This is a reference quality disc of a truly deserving film. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS. Despite being dialogue driven, there is very good separation in the sound field: a very rewarding listening experience with subtler bits of ambiance. Extras are all ported over from MGM's previously issued DVD and include ‘making of’ featurettes, an audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)