When Harry Met Sally (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When Harry Met Sally, probably Rob Reiner's most popular film to date (the other likely candidate for that title would be A Few Good Men), made the studios aware that, even during the cynical '90s, the romantic comedy could be a profitable genre. Released during the summer of 1989 as a form of "counter-programming" for those tired of the season's action blockbusters (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), When Harry Met Sally surprised everyone (Columbia Pictures included) by amassing a gross approaching $100 million. Before this movie, dozens of years had passed since the adult romantic comedy was in vogue (primarily because of poor scripts and a lack of chemistry between leads), but When Harry Met Sally changed the trend. Due in large part to the success of Harry and the following year's Pretty Woman, the '90s have had more high-profile romantic comedies than any decade since the '50s.

The thing that When Harry Met Sally does best is to keep the focus firmly on the relationship between the two title characters, never wandering off on unwelcome tangents. There are subplots, to be sure, but even those are crucial to the evolution of Harry and Sally's friendship. And the film is not hamstrung by a litany of familiar romantic comedy clich├ęs. None of these are in evidence: bouts of jealousy caused by the return of an old flame, one character misunderstanding something the other does, or interference from manipulative friends who think the protagonists don't belong together. When Harry Met Sally offers an often humorous, occasionally poignant view of men, women, sex, love, and friendship.

Casting is one of the film's strengths. It would be hard to imagine anyone other than Billy Crystal as the wisecracking, eternally pessimistic Harry. Crystal's dry style is perfect for this role; he makes Harry insufferable and likable at the same time. And, beneath it all, there beats the heart of a caring man. Likewise, Meg Ryan's effervescent personality infuses Sally with buoyancy, and, later in the film, she too shows a vulnerable side. When Harry Met Sally was Ryan's springboard to a series of romantic leading roles that paired her with Tom Hanks (three times), Andy Garcia, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Kline, and Tim Robbins. Together, Crystal and Ryan really click. Even though their characters are polar opposites (or perhaps because of it), their interaction has a charm and warmth that most motion picture pairings lack.

The most famous line of dialogue (not counting Sally's fake orgasm, which is more a series of moans and screams than actual words), "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way," became a frequent topic of talk show discussions, magazine articles, and dinner table conversations during 1989. After raising the issue, the film spends the rest of its running length challenging it, and it's up to the viewer to decide whether the premise is proven or disproven by events. After all, although Harry and Sally become fast friends, their relationship does not remain platonic.

When Harry Burns and Sally Albright first meet, it's 1977. Both are leaving the University of Chicago for New York City (him to become a political consultant, her to become a journalist), and they share the drive. Along the way, they discover that they have little in common. At one point, Harry makes a pass at Sally, but she demurs, saying that they'll have to settle for being friends. That's when he makes his famous comment. They part in Manhattan, and it's five years before they bump into each other again, this time in an airport. By then, Harry is engaged to be married and Sally is in the midst of a serious relationship. They spend some time together on a plane, then separate amicably when they reach their destination. Their next encounter occurs in the late-'80s. They are both newly single (Harry's wife has recently left him and Sally has broken off a long-term, dead-end affair), and this mutual bond of loss draws them into a close friendship. When events push their relationship over the sexual line, things don't go smoothly.

Although Harry and Sally dominate the film, they are not the only couples we meet. Woven into the story is the romance between Sally's best friend, Marie (Carrie Fisher, shedding the remnants of the Princess Leia image), and Harry's close chum, Jess (Bruno Kirby). To add a slightly different flavor to the movie, Reiner occasionally interrupts the proceedings with documentary-style clips from interviews with elderly husbands and wives, all fondly recalling how they met. The actors in these scenes are so credible that it's easy to be fooled into thinking they're real couples recounting genuine anecdotes, rather than performers working from a script.

When Harry Met Sally is not a perfect film. In fact, one of the movie's most important scenes is marred by an "off" performance by Meg Ryan. It happens when Sally, distressed at learning that her previous boyfriend is getting married, breaks down in Harry's arms. While Crystal does a fine job of underplaying the moment, Ryan is glaringly over-the-top, and it gives the scene an awkward feel. This may be the only instance during the picture when Reiner is unable to effectively balance comedy and drama.

Ultimately, When Harry Met Sally works because it dares to be slightly different from most romantic comedies. While there's nothing radical in the trajectory of Harry and Sally's romance, it's not entirely conventional, either. The two main characters are well-written, with both easily transcending the level of stereotyping they could have easily fallen into. The dialogue is smart and witty, offering numerous quotable passages. However, although the film poses some intriguing questions about the nature of male/female relationships, it never really answers them, instead using this material as little more than a jumping-off point for the interaction between Harry and Sally.

For those who appreciate romantic comedies for both aspects of the genre (the "romance" and the "comedy"), When Harry Met Sally is a treat. The film was good to nearly everyone involved, elevating the careers of Crystal and Reiner (both of whom were already well-established), transforming Ryan into a bankable leading lady, and boosting screenwriter Nora Ephron's star (she went on to script and direct the popular and profitable Sleepless in Seattle, with Ryan and Tom Hanks). Nearly ten years after first reaching American screens, When Harry Met Sally still holds up remarkably well. That really shouldn't be a surprise, however, since a good romance is timeless.

When Harry Met Sally (United States, 1989)

Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Steven Ford, Lisa Jane Persky
Screenplay: Nora Ephron
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Music: Marc Shaiman
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Ranked #107 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1989-07-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1