When Harry Met Sally (1989) Retrospective Review

When Harry Met Sally (1989) Retrospective Review

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenwriter: Nora Ephron
Starring: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Despite it approaching the big 3-0, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally still seems to fiercely hold its own against contenders, proudly wearing the crown of Greatest Romantic Comedy Ever Made with smug pride… allegedly. Now, I am not afraid to admit that sometimes I seem to be a bit of a film snob; but that’s because I am one. That’s not to say I don’t ever enjoy some films as the mindless pieces of entertainment that they are (I’ve seen both of the Mamma Mias for Christ’s sake), but I do view cinema as an art form and seek enrichment from it. In my bio, I confess that I am a sucker for the decrepitly old classics and the movies which induce an existential crisis: the films I hold closest to my heart are the ones that left me a different person. However, this quest of self-actualisation has unfortunately left me blinkered and prejudiced at times – I definitely judge a film by its trailer and will easily form preconceptions about some poor hapless release for basically imaginary reasons. In my haughtiness, I often brush aside action films and rom-coms as not worth my time without realising what I might be missing out on.

I’ve never harboured any particular interest towards When Harry Met Sally; it just seemed a dumb rom-com from my parents’ generation about some dumb yuppies from middle America – nothing to relate to. Also, when hearing and reading raved recommendations for it along the lines of “Z’OMG, LIKE THE BEST ROM COM, LIKE EVERRRRR!” its an immediate turn-off because most of the rom-coms I have seen are just, meh.  Not to go too deeply into their repeated clichés and contrivances, are there any that are genuinely funny? It’s difficult to get invested in the blossoming relationship, usually as the film plays out to the ancient idea of “Men are from Mars, Women from Venus”, war of the sexes, sexist rubbish consisting of bullying and belittling. It makes the leads very unlikeable and not very romantic at all.

The decision to watch it whilst doing the mindless trawl through Netflix was taken lightly, based on a slight curiosity and the desire to meet with the expectations that self-confessed film buffs are held to, I walked in with not many expectations. HOLY SH*T though, it was incredible! My body trembled afterwards, I squealed and giggled in delight, I even dreamt about it that night, creating my own epilogue for it! Why did no one tell me!? How was it that good!? I sit here astounded at what I have been missing out on all these years, I am a changed woman – how many more movies have I been denying myself!? I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW THE RAIN HAS GONE…!!

Now, I am more than happy to wade in with my opinion on movies, and after enjoying the work of my knowledgeable Film Grad colleagues, I can make it look like I know what I’m talking about these days, but I definitely don’t think I qualify as an expert. However, films like When Harry Met Sally make writing reviews so bloody easy as you can just see how well it is made – every one knew exactly what their job was and carried it out to an exceptional standard. Even better, the power of its story-telling showed me what all other Rom-Coms are lacking, causing the inevitable Meh in their contemporaries. The writing, directing, editing and performances come together to create a tangible, burgeoning relationship between two characters, that audiences have repeatedly invested in over the years, and feel for as if they were real people.

When did Harry meet Sally then? The summer of ’77 at the University of Chicago, at the beginning of their joint drive to New York and the beginning of their graduate lives (ugh, relatable). Harry (Billy Crystal) is your typical life-expert edge-lord, and Sally (Meg Ryan) is the unusual combination of coolly logical’ yet haplessly optimistic control freak many women are at that age. Both, I could have hated very easily but they were oddly charming, even with the spitting! It is in this introductory road trip that Harry drops the legendary bombshell of “… men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way”. They part ways to follow their separate destinies once they arrive in New York and literally don’t see each other for years. They bump into each other when they’re both on the cusp of relationship milestones with their respective partners; and after a few more years they meet again as those promising relationships have fallen apart. Sympathetic to their similar plights, Harry and Sally start seeing each other as friends (despite Harry’s prediction) and thus the funniest and sweetest banter ensues as their fondness for each other grows. However, their growing affection develops into a genuine deep care for one each other which complicates things. Eventually the dreaded sex factor begins to catch up with them, threatening to destroy their relationship forever.

So clearly the stand out point of the movie is Harry and Sally themselves, possibly the only likeable couple in Rom-Com history. Nora Ephron is my new favourite person, squeezing in 10 years’ worth of believable growth into an hour and a half. Harry sheds his over-bearing edginess and slovenliness, becoming an actual serious gentleman, and beyond that a wounded divorcee full of raw emotion; but he never loses his mischievous, fun-loving, witty, caring essence. Basically, you’re left dying with the desire to see Sally heal him. And then Sally, oh God Sally; I honestly thought I would hate her. I thought she would be Harry’s humourless, uptight opponent, who would eventually be worn down by his incessant bullying and teasing. But oh no; our girl Sally grew in confidence and independence, softening in her compulsions and developing a wit that could easily trump Harry’s if she wanted to. It’s nearly impossible to not love this brilliantly smart, cool, resolute woman; so, it’s a major source of frustration when Harry is oblivious to his obvious feelings for her. Absolute genius, Nora played me for the fool I was, manipulating me to shout “JUST F*CK ALREADY!” Amazing.

Rob Reiner was also a major player in this terrible orchestration of our emotions, forcing us to witness romantic set-ups of Harry and Sally’s easy-going banter against the back drop of Central Park’s autumn in glorious technicolour. The bud of fondness swells and blossoms amongst all the spectacle and material of high-flying New York life – a metaphor of the importance of love beyond all other shallow successes, which could have easily been bungled and played too obviously, had we not been totally absorbed by the plight of our leads. Beyond direction, Reiner deserves some credit for Ephron’s amazing script, as many of the jokes and gentle teasing were inspired by the friendly interactions he had with the film’s star and personal friend, Billy Crystal (but also I’m so grateful to Ephron for making a point that almost aggressive taunting and humiliation is not cute or romantic at all and made the effort to show a relationship steeped in mutual respect, as seen in real life). Reiner excelled in the director’s chair for When Harry Met Sally as his gentle set-ups put faith and confidence in his actors to do their thing: this trust and respect nurtured fantastic performances, giving space and encouragement for improvisation and ad-lib with now legendary results. The New Year’s Eve embrace shot let Crystal and Ryan capture their respective characters’ pain, loneliness and longing with barely a word said.

Naturally, I will have to acknowledge that audiences wouldn’t have been able to enjoy this captivating and hilarious romance without the leads themselves. The writing, direction and editing would have been nothing without their understatedly powerful performances. They were heavily responsible for my shocked reaction to this film: I had only seen Meg Ryan in You’ve got Mail, which didn’t impact on me much, and I admit to great difficulty in conceptualising Billy Crystal in a serious romantic role as I can’t remove him from the image of Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc. (relatable millennial problems huh? Also, I just said WAZOWSKI really loudly in my house when I googled how to spell it). Oh, but what a disservice my presumptuous brain has done to them both. Again, there is total belief in the passage of 10 years with changes in nuances in emotional reactions to certain situations, hinting to wounds and grievances from days gone by. Their proactive contribution through improvisation (including “I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie” and of the course the infamous deli orgasm scene), creating something overall organic and relatable and this hits home for audiences. I felt envious, wanting to find a relationship like theirs, whilst reminding other people of the joys of what they have or sadly of the lovers they have lost.

Half way through the movie, there was a real danger of a cutesy rom-com without any stakes or drama, but when complications arose, it was their intensely emotional performances which led the attack on our peace of mind. Every facial tic and glance spoke volumes in terms of annoyance, pain, vulnerability, love and anger. A flicker of regret across Harry’s face after a night spent together had me calling him obscenities too unsuitable for print, and I felt personally hurt by Sally’s vitriolic rejection of his excuses for his behaviour – my jaw ached in sympathy. The naturalness of the story and the acting lead to the sickening empathy that Harry and Sally’s situation was too messed up to salvage, no matter how much I wanted them to, with awkwardness radiating from the screen. When the final declaration of love was proclaimed after this absolute rollercoaster of emotion, my reaction was almost climatic. For a film steeped in the authenticity of real modern life, it had a total fairy tale ending, yet it worked so bloody well. We can’t be shown a couple so perfect for each other go through some understandable crap because of doubt and anxiety and not end up in each other’s arm! I would have had to have killed everyone involved. Also, I know Harry’s love speech pretty well, with it being ripped and parodied so much in popular media. But after nearly 90 minutes of watching this dumb, frustrating yet made for each other pair, the bearing of Harry’s soul was the loveliest thing I had ever watched. Yup, I’m dead.

So yeah, it’s all well and good striving towards the higher things in life, but if I didn’t decide to come back down to Earth for a moment, I would have missed out on something wonderful right there before my eyes.


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