0447 | When Harry Met Sally

[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.
Marc Shaiman, Harry Connick, Jr, Various.
Running Time:
96 minutes.

Comments 21

  1. Cindy Bruchman January 10, 2016

    Stu, nice assessment of one of Nora Ephron’s best. Billy Crystal is at his prime here and most everyone loves Meg’s charm. Add to the sweetness their foils–Fisher and Kirby to balance it out. It spoke about love to a generation. You are in a different one, and I’m glad it spoke to you, too. I guess that’s why they call it a classic!

    • Stu January 11, 2016

      Thanks very much Cindy. I went into this with a bit of trepidation as I didn’t like Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, the two most obvious films that followed in the wake of WHMS. So it was a relief that feeling went within two or three minutes of the start! I did enjoy the performances by Crystal and Ryan; they develop such a great repartee between them.

  2. Paul S January 10, 2016

    Very fine work here Stu. Of all the more recent romantic comedies, I’d say When Harry Met Sally… stands among the tallest. There was a fresh spontaneity to it when it was released, and as you and others say a unique chemistry between the leads. It’s a film that exudes positive energy and charm and for me this one has improved over time.

    • Stu January 11, 2016

      Thanks very much Paul. I’d agree that it’s among the best (certainly of those I’ve seen of the era) and it’s definitely not short on charm. It stands up today.

  3. Caz January 10, 2016

    This is easily one of my favourite films, that took me quite a few viewings to get to that point but I just adore it. As I still feel a lot of what is said is relevant to this day!

    • Stu January 11, 2016

      It’s got a lot of fans, by the looks of things! I’m in no rush to see it again but I imagine you’d get a lot of out repeated viewings as the script has a lot of good lines.

      • Caz January 11, 2016

        Oh yeah Billy Crystal is exhausting in it isn’t he! But certainly has so much charm, I don’t think I was massively bothered when I first watched it years ago. Another thing about repeat viewings as you get older haha.

        • Stu January 12, 2016

          He is a bit! He seems like a bit of a nightmare at the start but I warmed to the character pretty quickly. And I know what you mean about repeat viewings. I’d have probably disliked this to a certain extent when I was younger but I’ve mellowed a little bit. Maybe I should give You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle another go? Or maybe not!

        • Caz January 12, 2016

          Oh yeah I think his character grows up a lot over the course of the film! I prefer You’ve Got Mail over Sleepless in Seattle, never been the biggest fan of the latter lol

        • Paul S January 12, 2016

          If we’re talking Hanks and Ryan don’t forget Joe Versus the Volcano. Easily my favourite of the three films they’ve made.

  4. Tom January 13, 2016

    Good for you for getting around to this one man. I don’t think I have much interest. As much as I like Billy Crystal, I can’t stand Meg Ryan. In the same way I think that Hugh Grant is a complete dunce and phony, so is my impression of her. But that’s probably just me.

    • Stu January 14, 2016

      Fair enough, and I agree about Grant, probably a nice enough guy and all but I don’t like the fact that he typifies the kind of actor that the UK manages to successfully export. The United Kingdom of Fops and Poshos! I’m not a massive Ryan fan either but of all the films of hers I’ve seen this is probably her best role. I’m no expert though!

  5. Todd Benefiel February 8, 2016

    This stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table! I really had a blast with this when it first came out, as did everyone else in 1989, but I haven’t seen it in so long, I wonder how I’d feel about it today. I have it sitting on my shelf, so maybe it’s time for a re-watch. Such a different time, so long ago. Glad you enjoyed it, Stu!

    • Stu February 8, 2016

      Very much so. I expect had I watched it back then I’d have been more impressed, and possibly even a little bit shocked by what is discussed, but only a little bit. I’m glad I finally saw it.

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