Romantic comedies (rom-coms) have a fairly standard formula:
- Boy and girl meet, usually by accident
- Boy likes girl, girl not so much
- Boy pursues girl, girl is:
b. Involved with someone else
c. Unaware through odd circumstances
- Boy pursues girl and connects (not physically)
- Boy slowly wears girl down (not physically)
- Boy turns girl off through:
a. His hidden issue she discovers
c. Dumbass act by boy
- Boy loses girl (not physically)
- Boy works like hell to win back girl
- Other forces work like hell to stop him
- Boy wins girl, physically and emotionally
Then there’s When Harry Met Sally…:
- Boy meets girl by accident
- Boy disinterested in girl, girl hates boy
- Boy doesn’t hate girl, girl dislikes boy
- Boy tolerates girl, girl tolerates boy
- Boy and girl so annoying others barely tolerate them
- Boy and girl hook up, others happy to be rid of them
- Awkwaaaard – others stuck with them again
- Boy realizes his fault, tries to make peace
- Girl agrees, his fault, rejects boy completely
- Boy, persistent little bastard, pounds girl (not physically)
- Boy wins girl or girl submits , see #5
This is When Harry Met Sally…, the greatest rom-com of my lifetime. This is why men write “Seeking Sally” for their online dating profiles. Or so I’m told. This is why short, less attractive men think they can use wit and charm to get women out of their league. This is why Oscar-nominees Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, Silkwood) and Rob Reiner (The American President, A Few Good Men) are considered such a brilliant screenwriter and director respectively. This is why every Oscar montage shows “the orgasm scene” and why Tony Bennett’s “Winter Wonderland” is my favorite Christmas song.
Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) meets Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) through a mutual, tolerant friend when he needs someone to share expenses while driving from California to New York during summer break from college. They are annoying then and still annoying when they meet a few years later on a plane and a few years later when reacquaint while shopping in FAO Schwarz. They become friends because nobody else will tolerate them. On a double date, Harry with Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Sally with Jess (Bruno Kirby), they are so annoying that Marie and Jess hop into a passing taxi to get away from them. Marie and Jess eventually get married, possibly just to protect themselves from ever again dating anyone like Harry and Sally.
We know they’re going to get together by the end, but it’s a matter of enjoying the ride that is doomed to crash and shake the dust off and keep going. It’s not a perfectly straight narrative but includes a handful of vignettes that show a progression of leaps and bounds in their relationship as well as a progression of Sally’s hair and clothing styles.
Crystal as Harry is pretty much the Crystal as Oscar host. He never seems to be acting, just being his quick-witted, sarcastic but not snarky self except without the luxury of Robert Wuhl feeding him jokes. He’s hysterically annoying when leaving voicemails for Sally as she listens but refuses to answer because she’s insulted from his rejection after a FWB night. Ryan as Sally is just the cutest, most clueless woman you’ll ever want to meet. Be sure to give her a fake number when you leave in the morning because she’ll tempt you to push her down the stairs after a second date. I’m not advocating violence against women, just violence against annoying people, regardless of gender.
Reiner was careful enough to guide Kirby and Fisher into being little more than a wall for Harry and Sally to throw their baggage against and then allow us to watch their personal effects fly in all directions. Ryan and Crystal are an updated version of Keaton and Allen in Annie Hall, the kind of couple you love to watch from a distance as long as you don’t have to spend a Thanksgiving with them.
Although you would expect a good slice of improvisation in a rom-com with Crystal, there was very little. The “I’ll have what she’s having” was thrown in by Billy Boy but given to someone else (Reiner’s mother, an extra). Originally, Harry was offered to but turned down by Albert Brooks. Sally was offered to Molly Ringwald, who accepted but then had to back out due to a previous commitment. Damn shame, eh? Nah.
The lead characters are based on the writer and director: Sally is based largely on Ephron and Harry on Reiner in real life. They had similar verbal exchanges in real life, just as Harry and Sally do, and it all eventually evolved into the film. The late Ephron once said the one thing she regrets about the film is the title. An earlier title was Boy Meets Girl, which I didn’t actually know until after having written this and coming up a little short and looking for a few fun facts about the film. Last one – the official title includes an ellipsis at the end.
It’s one of those films that you might not love but must see in order to have a well-rounded film education. And if you haven’t, you’d better have an excuse like being trapped under a large piece of furniture.
The Good: Ryan’s constant cuteness
The Bad: Ryan is constantly clueless
The Ugly: The “about last night” moment