When Harry meets Sally, they are college students thrown together while sharing a ride from Chicago to New York. Both are moving to the Big Apple, but Harry is skeptical about being friends. He insists that men and woman cannot maintain platonic friendships. Inevitably, he says, “the sex parts” get in the way. Why bother?
Nevertheless, as we see in Rob Reiner’s new film, When Harry Met Sally…, a platonic friendship is possible between these two. At least, it’s possible until the sex parts get in the way. Maybe Harry was right after all.
Reiner’s story, which he developed with writer Nora Ephron, carries these characters over more than 10 years, during which they lose track of each other, find significant relationships with others (which ultimately fail), and settle into a comfortable best-friend groove. They call each other from bed when Casablanca comes on late-night television, and debate whether Ingrid Bergman should’ve stayed with Humphrey Bogart, but that’s the closest they come to sharing a bed until an impromptu hugging session turns serious.
This is a funny movie with a big laugh every three or four minutes, but it doesn’t go quite as deep as Reiner clearly intends. And Reiner has difficulty escaping the long shadow cast by Woody Allen’s movies, especially Annie Hall. Reiner’s vision of Manhattan is quite loving – two friends discussing important stuff at a hot dog stand on the corner, lovers walking through Central Park – but we’ve seen these things before, and better, in Allen’s films.
Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play Harry and Sally; their good friends, who naturally find happiness with each other long before Harry and Sally do, are played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher. Ryan is still maturing as an actress, but she has a couple of confidently managed showstoppers, including a scene in a crowded deli in which she demonstrates the technique of faking an orgasm. (The house is almost guaranteed to be brought down each time this scene plays.)
Crystal, better known as a comedian than an actor, seems a curious, superficial choice at first, but he eventually settles in. With his unerring sense of where to aim a one-liner, he’s obviously what Reiner wants in the role.
When Harry Met Sally … is above all a vehicle for Rob Reiner’s blend of sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and Borscht-belt comic instincts (the latter honed, no doubt, at the knee of his father Carl who wrote for Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar and created “The Dick Van Dyke Show”). After he capably directed other peoples’ stories in Stand by Me and The Sure Thing, you have the feeling Reiner is telling his own story this time. It’s a nice one.
First published in The Herald, July 13, 1989
For a movie that seems to have taken a secure place as a modern comedy classic (“modern” even though over 30 years old now), it’s a little surprising that it got only one Oscar nomination, for Ephron’s screenplay. It’s a well-jiggered piece, with many funny moments, but I will say that its central premise, that a man and woman cannot be friends, seems very un-modern, and more suited to a 1950s Doris Day picture – but then I find a lot of Ephron’s attitude and humor to be retrograde, despite her comic gifts.