[Note: this is the first film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’m going to be watching for the first time this year see this post.]
Today Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, which features an Oscar-nominated original screenplay by the late Nora Ephron, is seen as a kind of touchstone for the romantic comedy genre. It was well-received when it appeared in 1989, too, filling cinemas despite being up against two of the year’s biggest blockbusters (Batman and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade). Critics were mostly forthcoming with praise, with Roger Ebert claiming that Reiner was ‘one of Hollywood’s very best directors of comedy’, a statement I wouldn’t dispute nearly 30 years later. It may not be on a par with his earlier masterpiece This Is Spinal Tap, but When Harry Met Sally is a thoroughly enjoyable hour-and-a-half nonetheless, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in career-defining roles as the will-they, won’t-they couple at the heart of the story.
The two share chemistry from the off. The lengthy (and excellent) prologue shows them meeting and travelling from Chicago to New York, with their individual characteristics firmly established within five minutes. Crystal’s motormouth Harry is a borderline offensive provocateur, and has more than a touch of boyish arrogance, while his dark(ish) ramblings and opinionated nature mask a few obvious insecurities. Ryan’s Sally by contrast is prim and proper, a little bit ditzy, but quick to stand up for herself and keen to establish equal footing in the face of Harry’s attempted dominance: so when he raises the topic of sexual experience because he knows it’s likely he’s got more of it, she gives him short shrift and bluntly rejects his come on. Once their faults and idiosyncracies are established the subsequent meet-cutes develop quirks just as much as they highlight mutual attraction, though the pair are initially hampered as they’re in relationships with other people; years pass quickly but fate keeps bringing the two together in ways that are easier to accept in a romantic comedy than they would be in, say, a serious romantic drama. In between these chapters we see faux interviews with couples who have supposedly been together for a long time, and these vignettes are delivered in mock-documentary style straight to camera. Ephron’s script is at its sharpest when it’s gently taking the mickey out of coupledom and suitability, and never more so than during these brief scenes, in which unnamed men and women trade telling glances or finish one another’s sentences.
Reiner’s film settles eventually on the year 1988, and New York, and that’s when we get the famous scene in which Sally fakes an orgasm in front of the customers of a packed Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s quite tame by today’s standards, but I remember the era well enough to know how risqué the scene was for the time, and the same can be said for some of the franker discussions about sex and marital life that take place elswhere in the film. When it comes to these Ephron’s script has a flavour of Woody Allen’s New York-set romances about it, and the shadow of Allen looms large over other aspects of the film, with regard to the trad jazz soundtrack, the design of the credits, the use of Casablanca, the characters and the setting (though I would hasten to add it’s not like he has any kind of exclusivity rights in place when it comes to fast-talking New Yorkers or Central Park). I’ve seen comments that suggest When Harry Met Sally is like an Allen film with all the hard edges smoothed over to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences, though I think that’s unfair on Ephron, Reiner and the performers, all of whom did good work here.
I doubt I’ll return to watch it again in the future, and I’ve found plenty of other rom-coms funnier over the years, but I still enjoyed When Harry Met Sally and can see it’s importance in terms of the rom-com genre, as well as its influence. The two lead actors deliver Ephron’s amusingly cynical lines about love and modern relationships with some fine comic timing, and there’s some neat support by Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby too, even though they’re playing a completely unlikely couple. I was surprised to find that the screenplay actually kept me guessing right up to the very end, which was a bonus as I think it just starts to run a little short on laughs after the 70 minute mark. Up to that point, though, it delivers more than enough.
Directed by: Rob Reiner.
Written by: Nora Ephron.
Starring: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby.
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld.
Editing: Robert Leighton.
Music: Marc Shaiman, Harry Connick, Jr, Various.
Running Time: 96 minutes.