When Harry Met Sally...
First screened in Fall 1991 / Reviewed in July 2003 / Most recently screened in December 2013
Director: Rob Reiner. Cast: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Bruno Kirby, Carrie Fisher, Michelle Nicastro, Steven Ford, Lisa Jane Persky, Harley Jane Kozak, Gretchen Palmer, Kevin Rooney, Tracy Reiner, Estelle Reiner, Kuno Sponholz, Connie Sawyer, Charles Dugan, Katherine Squire, Al Christy, Frances Chaney, Bernie Hern, Rose Wright, Aldo Rossi, Donna Hardy, Peter Pan, Jane Chung. Screenplay: Nora Ephron.

Twitter Capsule: The greatest romantic comedy since at least Adam's Rib? Everything works, in every department. Unbeatable.

VOR:   Holy Grail of mainstream romantic comedies ever since. Worthy heir to 30s peaks. Unending pop-cultural ubiquity is no accident.

Ed. Jul 2005: This isn't a proper review so much as preliminary notes toward a defense of When Harry Met Sally... as more than "just" exceptionally sweet and exceptionally funny. It started as an e-mail to a colleague. I should probably take it down until I can deliver a fuller assessment. But if you want to continue this discussion, friend or foe, drop me a line!

Photo © 1989 Columbia Pictures/Castle Rock Entertainment
When Harry Met Sally... was the greatest American romantic comedy of the 1980s, a grim decade for the U.S. both politically and cinematically. No serious challengers emerged in the 1990s, despite many obvious attempts to capture similar lightning in dingier bottles—sometimes care of the same talents who produced this miracle. Most of those movies proffered romance and laughs without even trying to formulate a larger idea, and without thinking so creatively about what would entail a great movie, no matter what genre. I think people, even those who adore When Harry Met Sally..., frequently underestimate its ingenuity as storytelling and filmmaking, in part because the movie refuses to ask any credit along these lines. Of all the great American movies of the last 20 years, When Harry Met Sally... is probably the humblest in style and construction, yet it has proved among the hardest to replicate. Sleepless in Seattle, While You Were Sleeping, Jerry Maguire, You've Got Mail, Kissing Jessica Stein, My Big Fat Greek Wedding... These movies vary in quality, but they all betray some impress of When Harry Met Sally...'s example, and whatever their respective charms, they all suffer for the comparison.

For any worthy company, one has to look all the way back to the triumphant romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, when studios treated this genus of popular cinema as rich and ever-renewable, dignifying it as so much more than a quick, inexpensive way to make a low-budget lark and generate unambitious distractions. Ephron's script, Reiner's direction, Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography, and Robert Leighton's editing—sometimes weak in continuity edits, but expert at timing and performance control—demonstrate a rapturous love of movie-love, but also a consummate, unabashed enthusiasm for crafting a movie about hearts and wit and badinage and intimacy and destiny. Put another way, When Harry Met Sally... is as glorious a film about being in love with movies as it is about being in love, period.

An expert sense of structure is evinced from the very beginning, in the quick transitions between an opening sequence in 1977 when Harry actually does meet Sally, one in 1982 when he re-meets her in an airport, and again in 1987 (or 1988—the timelining gets a little fuzzy) when they cross paths yet again—and this time make the smart choice of staying in touch. The details of costume, hairstyling, and production design that demarcate these chronological shifts are delightful in and of themselves, but more rewardingly, Billy Crystal as Harry and Meg Ryan as Sally are immediately allowed the opportunity to show us subtly different versions of their characters over the course of a ten-year period. Yes, Sally Albright is consistently optimistic, and Harry is a wisecracking brooder, the guy who always starts a novel on the last page lest he die before knowing what happens. But, within those broad and sturdy templates, real change takes place: Sally, for example, is a brisker and pithier version of herself in 1982 than she was in 1977. The girl who is initially too embarrassed to admit out loud that Harry is making a pass at her ("Amanda is my friend," she whispers, an aghast euphemism for "stay out of my pants") has become a woman with no reluctance about telling Harry on an airplane, "You may or may not believe this, Harry, but I never considered not sleeping with you a sacrifice." We know she's eased up some, even as Ryan's outfit and demeanor telegraph in the other direction that Sally is still into Miss Hospital Corners. Harry remains a dour joker, but his inner wiseacre seems, by the third meeting, like an overt attempt to avoid introspection and dilute a lingering, at-long-last acknowledged unhappiness. If we stop laughing long enough to think about it, we sense Harry at last as a bruised character with a genuine interiority, not just a wisecracker with a screenplay-friendly dark side. And then Sally gets that great monologue—not just beautifully written but expertly performed—about what went wrong in her longest-term relationship, and we both see and hear what has stayed the same about her and what has changed, far beyond what the dialogue states outright. In pinpointed, economical strokes, all setting the scene for the major arc and timeframe of the movie, we know the characters as well as the actors do, even as well as they themselves do. And not once afterward (how many movies can claim this?) does either person say or do anything she or he would never plausibly say or do. Which doesn't mean they don't surprise each other, and us, too.

From all this build-up, the film mines some of its best jokes—Sally's "It just so happens that I have had plenty of good sex!" is perfectly timed and delivered, as is Harry's gradual provocation of that outburst—but the film also prefigures a romantic sensibility that is seasoned and unquestionably adult. When Harry Met Sally... does not, unlike Sleepless in Seattle, treat romance as the cosmic meeting of ordained soul-mates. Instead, the repeated re-introductions of Harry and Sally to each other, as well as the palpable personality adjustments that both characters undergo, intimate that love is made possible by a complex simultaneity of the right person, with the right history, at the exact right time. Grade: A+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Screenplay: Nora Ephron

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Rob Reiner
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Meg Ryan
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Billy Crystal
Best Screenplay: Nora Ephron

Other Awards:
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Original Screenplay

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