When Harry Met Sally (1989)


Review by Throwback.

 When looking at When Harry Met Sally, we ought to begin by drawing a line between the romantic comedy and the comedic romance. Somewhere along the way, every movie that had a love story plot, plus a couple of funny moments, was deemed a romantic comedy. This was a bad move. A romantic comedy, if we are to take the name seriously, is a comedy movie with some romantic elements. On the other hand, a romance movie that has a few funny bits should more properly be labeled a comedic romance. This is important because it affects people’s expectations of what they are going to see. For me, I classify When Harry Met Sally as the former: a romantic comedy.

Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) happen to meet each other upon graduating from college. They are sharing a drive during which we are introduced to the film’s main question, namely, whether a man and a woman can be mere friends or if sexual tension makes such an association impossible. (which is a phenomenally important philosophical question that goes all the way back to Plato.) Over the next decade or so, they continue to encounter each other in a variety of circumstances and their relationship grows more and more serious. As they’re drawn closer together, the issue of the main question keeps popping up, forcing them to deal with it in the end.

 As a director, Rob Reiner has far more of a range than most. However, I find this movie unique among his other accomplishments.  In his good efforts, he’s typically managing a large sort of ensemble, with lots of meaty secondary characters to help drive the show. Think The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, or Spinal Tap. When he has to narrow his vision, things don’t go nearly as well. The American President and The Bucket List come to mind. When Harry Met Sally stays very firmly with the title characters and does so quite well. Moreover, in stark contrast to modern entries in the genre, it doesn’t meander off into superfluous plot threads just to throw in funny situations to make sure you are still laughing. The film lives and dies by the main characters. Let me add that the meandering that is done, in the form of intercut scenes of older couples talking about their relationships, is a fantastic touch.

Forget the nonsense you’ve heard about Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks’s great screen chemistry. In their movies, they barely seem to be on-screen together at all. Ryan and Crystal, on the other hand, are simply wonderful. In a word, it’s genuine stuff. I would venture to say that Harry and Sally are two of the most relatable movie characters ever for an audience. Everyone has either been them or knows them.

There are some flawed points, certainly. Some of the exposition to catch you up after the time jumps ahead between Harry/Sally meetings is a bit forced and awkward. The other movie characters, though not all that significant, are annoying. That’s not the actors’ faults, and it is common fare in comedies from this period (e.g., Sleepless in Seattle, another Ryan film, where all the secondary characters are hopelessly irritating). To the contrary, they probably do too good a job. This are basically just nitpicking, though. None of this is enough to spoil anything.

I wouldn’t say there’s anything necessarily Catholic about the film. This is one that fits more in the category of “it’s funny because it’s true.” Men and women do act this way, for good or ill.  If you see this movie with your significant other, you will probably wind up having a number of enlightening conversations about how the mind of the opposite sex works. I’ve had some people try to introduce themes from the movie into Theology of the Body sorts of discussions. I can see where they’re going, especially from the standpoint of men being able to look at a woman as a friend rather than a sex object. Maybe that works, but the movie doesn’t really offer much of a remedy for the situation. It just acknowledges the problem.

For a movie that’s so focused on sex, there’s really not any graphic content. There is the famous scene with Sally in the restaurant and maybe half a dozen f-bombs. Everything else is in the neighborhood of adult content but without major profanity. To me, this was a huge accomplishment. If this movie was made today, every other word would have been either an f-bomb or some vulgar anatomical euphemism. Naturally, there’s fornication, but nothing is shown other than two people in bed, so it is more implied than depicted. This is a great alternative to the banal and vapid “chick flick” mill coming out of Hollywood. It might be a stretch to call it thought-provoking, but it will definitely prompt some eye-opening talks about how men and women treat each other.

Two and a half tiaras. It would be three if not for the F-bombs and implied fornication.