johnlink ranks WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989)

…because any time you can follow up FINAL DESTINATION 5 with a 23-year-old 2D romantic comedy with solid acting and writing, you have to do it. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… is at the top of my favorite rom-com list. It’s a pretty short list, with (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and KEEPING THE FAITH rounding out the top three. I’ve talked before about the amazing run Rob Reiner made from the 80s into the early 90s, and this is his landmark romantic comedy, made right in between THE PRINCESS BRIDE and MISERY. Now that is one heck of a trilogy!

I watched WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989) on 7.21.12. It was probably my tenth or eleventh viewing of the film, and first in half a dozen years.

The world recently lost Nora Ephron, one of the great screenwriters of the last century. I would call WHMS her opus, except this is really a small and personal film about two people sorting out the years between their early 20s through their early 30s. There is no filler here at all, with the story entirely happening in the relationship between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). Only one secondary story is given any time to, and that is the budding relationship between Harry’s friend Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Sally’s friend Marie (Carrie Fisher). And that relationship is there only to serve as the catalyst for Harry and Sally to reflect on their own lives and idiosyncrasies.

This goes on any list of directed romantic comedies of all time. Reiner doesn’t get in the way, rather shooting some beautiful New York City landscapes sprawling out behind the relationship of Harry and Sally. There are some beautiful shots of them walking Central Park in the autumn, with orange leaves filling the frame. There are great moments of silhouette in the museum, as Sally turns down Harry’s offer of some pecan pie (an improvised scene which threw Meg Ryan off to the point that she looks off-screen left to Rob Reiner at one point. He instructs her to keep going, and the shot was kept). There is also a single freeze-frame, taken at the end of the first New Year’s Party which, simultaneously, tells us the importance of the first small and friendly kissed they shared and foreshadows the importance of the New Year’s Party for alter in the film.

Additionally, Reiner has always been a guy to get very good, human performances out of his leads. Everyone in this nails it, with Meg Ryan’s break-down scene upon learning of her ex’s impending marriage being the only moment played for anything but a heightened form of charming realism. This is Crystal’s best role, one which allows him to play the pathos of a guy who puts up a front of pessimism to mask his fear of isolation. Meg Ryan, who has fallen off the map in later years, is adorable as Sally. But adorable isn’t the end of the line, with her playing several strong scenes as the necessary foil to Crystal. One particularly great scene occurs on the apartment steps in which Harry takes out his frustration on Sally, followed by Sally getting really shaken for the first time and unleashing on Harry.

Ephron’s script is top-notch. I love how these characters grow. Sally loses some of her innocence and idealism (but not too much). Harry’s quest is to lose some cynicism and replace it with joy. They both say things in their youth that they’d love to take back a decade later. Both say things which make us angry. Harry talks about men and women never really being able to be friends. Sally has the audacity to say that Humphrey Bogart might not have been the right choice for Ingrid Bergman at the end of CASABLANCA. They both try to revise these statements later, but they’re already out there (just as Harry calling Sally attractive is already out there).

The memorable lines in this movie are several. The pecan pie bit is classic. The ‘men and women can’t be friends’ bits are hilarious (and infuriating). “I will never want that wagon wheel coffee table,” “That symptom is fucking my wife,” “I’ll have what she’s having,” etc. Plus Harry’s plea to Sally in the film’s final moments is all time classic. His line “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible,” is one of my favorites in any movie. Ever.

I like the use of the elderly couples telling their stories as a way to transition between time periods. They don’t all tell happy and amazing stories (though some do). We learn that love is sometimes born out of arraigned marriage. Sometimes only rediscovered after a couple has divorced, married several other people, and then found each other again. I also appreciate that those couples don’t all seem thrilled. Love presence in different ways, and at different times. The story of Harry and Sally is universal in the fact that it could easily not have happened at all. The message in this romantic comedy is not that love is destiny, but rather that love takes work, perseverance, anger, frustration, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Perhaps that’s why this story resonates with me more than many of the more inane romantic comedies, I really appreciate the themes at work here.

I’m glad I finally get to put down thoughts about this movie. Despite Harry’s cynical look at the world, this is an optimistic and joyful film. It’s been too long since I last saw it. It’s a film which lasts under 95 minutes, but absolutely puts a smile on my face for the entire time.








~ by johnlink00 on July 22, 2012.

One Response to “johnlink ranks WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… (1989)”

  1. […] I gave a lot of ’10s’ this year. I gave 4 films perfect marks for ACTING (SHAWSHANK, TREE OF LIFE, WINTER’S BONE, and MANHATTAN). I gave 6 movies perfect WRITING scores (SHAWSHANK, CASABLANCA, INSIDER, CAINE MUTINY, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. […]

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