WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: Having endured an uncomfortable road trip together during their time in college, Harry Burns and Sally Albright meet again after ten years and slowly become good friends. As both attempt to get over relationship traumas, each sets the other up with their own best friends; but when this has an unanticipated outcome and Sally needs comforting over some unwelcome news, the relationship changes forever, making life more than a little awkward.
I have a habit of referring to When Harry Met Sally whenever I’ve watched a film with which it bears the slightest comparison, so I thought it was about time I had a look at the original. The danger is, of course, that the mind plays tricks and a film you consider to be a classic turns out to be all too flawed. Happily, in this case all is much as I remembered it.
In 1977, Sally (Meg Ryan) agrees to give her friend’s boyfriend Harry (Billy Crystal) a lift from Chicago to New York, an eighteen-hour trip during which the two decide they are not going to be friends. For one thing, she is optimistic and obsessive about how she wants things, especially food, whereas he is boorish and morose, reading the last page of books first in case he doesn’t live to read the whole thing; for another, he has a theory that men and women can’t be friends since the ‘sex part’ always gets in the way. They gladly take their leave and it’s five years before they run into each other again, Sally loved-up with a guy called Joe and Harry about to be married, though the theory, according to Harry, still holds true.
Five years later still, Harry is coming out of the other end of his marriage and Sally is no longer with Joe, not that she cares – much – and the pair meet again. Finding they now have things they can talk about they begin a sparky friendship, with Sally challenging Harry’s assumptions (especially in regards to how women treat sex) and Harry attempting to broaden Sally’s horizons. They even throw potential partners in each others’ way as they double-date with friends Jess and Marie (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher); but the friends immediately fall for each other, leaving Harry and Sally with only each other to dance with come New Years’. However, when Harry runs into his ex-wife and Sally discovers Joe is to be married, Harry and Sally’s mutual support spills over into passion. Inevitably, the friendship is ruined when Harry sprints away from the ramifications of sleeping with Sally; then, when he tries to make amends, she ignores him and tries to carry on with her life, even though Harry is the one person in New York who truly knows her.
Lest I be accused of sycophancy, let me start with the observation that When Harry Met Sally’s central pillar is not particularly original, one of James Joyce’s Dubliners characters observing a century ago (in different circumstances, admittedly) that ‘…friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.’ This minor quibble apart, however, the film doesn’t put a foot wrong, and this is largely due to the sheer brilliance of its leads. Crystal is superb at bringing Harry’s depressive nature and thoughtless sexism to life, the blank yet terrified look on his face as Sally lies in his arms saying a thousand words. Ultimately, though, this is Meg’s movie; Ryan is simply luminous as Sally and she is utterly convincing as the preppy, optimistic and particular student who becomes the more wary twentysomething, whilst retaining a glimmer of vulnerability where men are concerned. Her comic timing is flawless and she effortlessly carries off the notorious ‘orgasm’ scene which will be shown for as long as films are watched. Ryan has been subject to negative press in the last few years, and no doubt some of it is self-inflicted; but that doesn’t alter the fact that her performance here is nothing short of wonderful. Crystal and Ryan work superbly together as they carefully feel their way around the boundaries of their relationship, which grows with arguments, setbacks and reconciliations that feel entirely organic.
Much of the credit for this, of course, must go to Nora Ephron, whose script gives the leads intelligent, funny and adult exchanges throughout, letting Harry and Sally discover each others’ personalities fully before they hop into bed and providing great foils for the leads in Jess and Marie (both Kirby and Fisher are excellent) in addition to giving the characters consistently entertaining things to say and do (I particularly like the Pictionary game with the classic quote ‘But “baby fish mouth” is sweeping the nation’, and the fight over Jess’s wagon wheel table).
In Reiner’s hands, the film assumes a kind of realism as the dialogue is allowed to breathe, the score largely limited to accompanying montages; he shows great skill, too, in managing important, intimate details such as the two New Years’ parties and the conversations that simultaneously take place between Harry and Jess and (separately, sort of) Sally and Marie. I also like the short stories from old married couples that intersperse Harry and Sally’s tale, especially as some of the participants’ expressions make it clear that married life is hardly a bed of roses. Interestingly, by concentrating almost solely on the relationship aspect of Harry and Sally’s lives, the film neither looks nor feels particularly 80s and stands the test of time very well indeed, even if The Sharper Image probably no longer stock cassette-powered karaoke machines.
When Harry Met Sally is very funny, very believable and has attractive characters that the viewer wants to see together, returns only possible because of the investment all parties have made in the film: the thoroughness of Ephron’s study into how her characters approach their own lives and each other’s, the perfect playing of the parts by all concerned, lightly corralled by Reiner’s unobtrusive direction which also makes New York look great (if not particularly diverse). If Sally doesn’t quite hit the inspirational heights of Annie Hall, neither does it suffer the implausibility of Allen as leading man, and Ephron, providing a welcome female perspective, writes men every bit as well as Woody writes women. If a film is ever to raise the bar for comparison, it will have to be very good indeed.