Monday, September 8, 2014

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: When Harry Met Sally...

My top pick this week is Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally...", a small romcom that turned into one of the most interesting success stories. Like so many other classics, this tale of friends who become lovers was released with modest ambitions in 1989. Using the "platform" strategy, the film used strong word of mouth to become a major box office hit. Decades later, it has established itself in pop culture as a quintessential romcom, to the point where even those who haven't seen it (myself included) are familiar with its legacy. You can't discuss the genre without mentioning Nora Ephron or Meg Ryan. All it takes is one viewing of this seminal film to erase all doubts as to the value of their contribution.

The thesis of "When Harry Met Sally..." hinges on a single question - "Can men and women ever just be friends?". It arises in the beginning of film when our male lead Harry Burns (Billy Crystal), declares his negative stance on the matter to his new acquaintance Sally Albright (Meg Ryan). He claims that "men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way", much to the dismay of the more optimistic Sally. His macho cynicism gets them off on the wrong foot and the young graduates part ways following their shared ride to New York from the University of Chicago. Years later, a pair of chance encounters following failed romantic relationships causes them to confide in each other. Challenging Harry's initial position, they decide to form a platonic friendship which sustains them for a long time to come. As time goes by however, their unexpressed mutual attraction threatens to complicate their lives. Spanning more than 10 years, the plot moves towards its all-important resolution - will Harry and Sally end up as friends, apart or lovers?

Watching "When Harry Met Sally..." for the first time turned out to be one of my most surprising experiences of introduction to a classic. Considering its reputation within a now cliché genre, it's a film that's refreshingly unassuming. More often than not, comedic romance films rely on screwball elements to bring the central couple together. It seems like you can't have a romcom today - really, this goes all the way back to the 1930s - without some major moment of humiliation to bring the characters together. Of course, when it's well done it can be hilariously effective. Gauging from the general dismissal of romcoms however (from critics at least), it seems like the genre is running out of ideas in its attempts to stage the next iconic pratfall. For "When Harry Met Sally..." on the other hand, there's no need for grand absurdity (yes, including the famous "fake orgasm" scene) in order for it to satisfy audiences. Its understated humour is one of the main reasons why it still holds up so well today.

For me, the best word to describe "When Harry Met Sally..." is effortless. From top to bottom, it shows its brilliance with seeming ease. In the background, Harry Connick Jr.'s perfectly curated soundtrack of standards is sweetly romantic. Behind the camera, Rob Reiner's direction is light and unfussy but always purposeful. On top of it all, the writing and acting give a thoughtful, honest depiction of various types of relationships and the influence of time on our lives.

Deservedly Oscar-nominated, Nora Ephron's screenplay gives an excellent showcase of well-written characters and dialogue. It starts out with the pervasive "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" gender dichotomy and grows into a more meaningful exploration of the unique affectation between opposite sex best friends. From the perspective of a straight male, I found the dynamic between Harry and Sally to be instantly relatable. Throughout all the phases of their relationship, their conversations and changing philosophies were insightful and honest. As they encountered life's triumphs and tribulations, I laughed along with them and I also felt their pain. It may be a relatively short film (96 minutes), but it's incredibly rich and fully-formed.

Of course, the world's best script would be moot without the believable chemistry of its co-stars. Luckily, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were the perfect match. Their chemistry is of the naturalistic, relaxed variety and it makes their relationship entirely believable. The lack of sexual heat works in the film's favour, allowing them to develop their close relationship on a more solid foundation than mere physical attraction. They're individually very compelling too, especially Meg Ryan as the more high-maintenance half of the duo. Her particular mix of affable cuteness and unapproachable beauty makes you fall in love with her, even in her most grating scenes. It's no wonder that Hollywood milked her charm for all it's worth, making her the go-to female romantic lead of the 90s. As we all know, her career hit a slump after that but when she was on top, there was hardly anyone who could match her appeal. Tell me, has there ever been another utterance of "I hate you" that was so disarmingly romantic?

In short, I was thoroughly impressed by "When Harry Met Sally...". It really solidified my belief in the underrated cinematic potential of the "chick flick". Like the oft-referenced "Casablanca" in the film, it fully earns its reputation as a timeless gem among the screen's long history of love stories.


  1. I’m glad you enjoyed this one because When Harry Met Sally was the movie where I first fell in love With Meg Ryan. I saw it on a date, on its initial release, and couldn’t help moaning and gasping whenever Meg would do something… roll her eyes, deliver a line, laugh… my date continually elbowed me in the ribs and got very agitated. No second date for us, but my love for Meg Ryan movies endures to this day.

  2. You just saw this for the first time?! Finally. I mean I guess it's a little different because of the genre, but I've seen this so many times since I was a kid. I absolutely adore it. The writing is perfect and you really can't beat 90's Meg Ryan.

  3. LOVE this movie so much! You are so right, effortless! Meg Ryan's Oscar snub is so sad, because this is one of the best comedic performances of all time.