Dir. Rob Reiner. Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
The difference between When Harry Met Sally (…, and you’re nuts if you think I’m going to type that every time) and every other romantic comedy is that When Harry Met Sally has the most boring plot. Bringing Up Baby throws Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn together via Baby, the leopard. (He is so cute!) Love Actually turns ensemble cast into a dirty word, 500 Days of Summer falls back on a clever but distancing structure, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin tells its own story. Groundhog Day, Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman: each one needs a wild and crazy plot to get down to the seemingly simple business of “man falls for woman, woman falls for man.” Few romantic comedies are brave enough to play outside that realm, but even those that do rely on something else to add heft or interest, like a lover’s family (Silver Linings Playbook, Say Anything) or Woody Allen (several Woody Allen movies). No, When Harry Met Sally stands alone because it tells the story of its main characters with very few frills.
It’s not perfect. I don’t know what those fake couples telling their fake stories that have nothing to do with the fake story on the screen have to do with Harry and/or Sally, and like other Ephron properties, sometimes I just wish that it wouldn’t split its thesis so baldly. (Julie and Julia is a far worse offender, but When Harry Met Sally feels more real when we haven’t so clearly demarcated whose life is whose.) But for much of the movie, the plot works. Instead of an outlandish situation, we are greeted with a Bush-41 proposition that is close enough to logical to hold merit: can men and women be friends? The answer that When Harry Met Sally has is “No,” seeing as the only pair of heterosex friends are Harry and Sally, and look how they end up, but it’s at least qualified. For years Harry and Sally were friends, and that’s not nothing.
Billy Crystal, at one point in the American consciousness, appears to have been ubiquitous. To people my age, he’s the voice of Mike Wazowski; amusingly enough, the parts of my upbringing spent with Billy Crystal were the hours I spent watching Ken Burns’ Baseball. To others, maybe even to others only seven or eight years older than me, When Harry Met Sally is a key element of his star image, alongside his year on SNL or City Slickers or his evergreen Oscars presence. Crystal’s Harry plays Allen Lite; he’s a neurotic guy living in New York, but he only has to tell you four or five times instead of turning it into his only signifier. It makes him significantly more human than Allen playing Allen, and we get maybe 90% of the punch on the one-liners and so many fewer moral questions. For Meg Ryan, it’s a little more complicated; she exists almost solely in the world of romantic comedies (I know she’s done other stuff, go away Meg Ryan’s hype people). There’s a line which begins with Kate Hepburn, runs through Doris Day and Shirley MacLaine, knocks on Diane Keaton’s door, and then winds up with Ryan. All of them are bright but lack confidence, are self-possessed 95% of the time but are defined by the 5% of the time they spend as a hot mess. (The Apartment, Pillow Talk, The Philadelphia Story, la di da.) Her Sally is independent and savvy enough to appeal to the median woman, but she’s pretty and needs a man just enough to appeal to the median man. The movie does better set in New York than it would have done in say, Omaha, but one doesn’t get the sense that it’s a dealbreaker. Alone, Harry and Sally would be sentenced to stare into their own souls inevitably – without one another, Harry’s divorce beard would have grown longer and longer, and Sally would have spent more time trying to morph into early ’70s Cybill Shepard – but together, someone else can stare into that void.
If the two of them had gotten together in their early twenties, shortly after their car trip from Chicago to New York City, perhaps it would be easy to say that what brings them together is their opposing natures. Harry tries too hard to be deep. When he says that he reads the last page of a book first to know how it ends, just in case he dies, one gets the sense that he opened Meditations on First Philosophy to the last page and then decided to skip the rest of the book. And Sally, who is not so dumb, dismisses him. “That doesn’t make you deep or anything,” she says, and she’s really on the money. She has the power to deflate him so effortlessly, not by being cruel or even terribly pointed but by being honest. She chides Harry for an outburst after he’s seen his ex-wife, Helen. Harry has told his best friend Jess (Bruno Kirby) that he will divorce Sally’s best friend Marie (Fisher) and “go fifteen rounds” over an ugly coffee table. “You’re going to have to find a way of not expressing every feeling you have every second you have them,” she says. When Harry fires back, saying she controls herself too much, that she ought to be having sex with people to show she’s over an ex-boyfriend, she calls him out on that too – and in the end, Harry apologizes. No, the reason that they get together, in the end, is because Harry’s turned into a grown-up. He’s been into her since the beginning; it took a while until he was a worthwhile candidate for life partner.
The best parts of the movie, and maybe this is fitting for a romantic comedy where the characters shouldn’t have gotten together at all, come when Harry and Sally are just palling around. There’s a brilliant five minutes of the movie which begins with the two of them sharing sex dreams (“and my mother, disguised as an East German judge…”), winds around to a silly Billy Crystal voice (“Waiter – there is too much pepper on my paprikash”), and ends with Harry warmly congratulating Sally on the date she has later tonight. He’s not hurt because it’s not him; if he’s hurt, it’s because he wishes that Sally had told him earlier. Like the moment when he apologizes to Sally for yelling later on in the film, it’s unique in the annals of romantic comedies. This may not be a movie that has much of a plot to speak of, but it certainly does seem to tread on uncharted ground.
If there’s a tricky piece of the film, it’s towards the end, once Harry and Sally have, unexpectedly, had sex. It’s not too long after we see that both of them are dating other people. Neither Harry nor Sally quite approve of their best friend’s new lovers – Emily (Tracy Reiner) is too young for Harry, Sally says, while Harry wonders if Julian (Franc Luz) isn’t a little stiff for Sally. And after Sally breaks down in a scene which is a mite cringeworthy (“BUT WHY DIDN’T HE WANT TO MARRY ME?”) but also has one of the best give-and-takes in the entire film –
Sally: And! I’m going to be forty!
Harry: In eight years…
– the two of them do it. The way we always knew they would. And then, like an expired Excedrin, it just doesn’t take. Harry tries to play it off smoothly (“I’d love to take you to dinner,” he tells her the morning after) but it’s so obviously a facade that everything goes to pulp.
One wonders if the right ending is for the two of them to have a sexual encounter which is deeply satisfying for both of them in the moment, but which is icky and weird afterwards. It fits both of their strong desires. Sally is intimate, a cuddler, and Harry is the kind who treats sex the way that bros treat a fistbump. If this were an episode of The Sopranos, doubtless the two of them would wander New York friendless and unfulfilled forever. But it doesn’t end like that. The two of them make up on New Year’s Eve and are married three months later. I’d like to think that I would like the movie better if it ended that New Year’s Eve, with Sally faking laughs with her date the way she faked an orgasm in a deli, with Harry wandering aimlessly around Manhattan. But I wouldn’t. This isn’t Villette; it’s a romantic comedy, and, more power to it, it’s just as interesting with a happy ending as it would have been with a sad one.