Late to the Party: When Harry Met Sally…

Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: a modern classic romcomdram.

I’m a sucker for romance stories. Romance is my favorite genre to read, and one of my favorite movies is a romance. I think I like the familiarity of the formula mixed with the possibility of subversion, and the (usually) guaranteed happy ending doesn’t hurt. For me, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Despite all that, I never made it a point to watch When Harry Met Sally. Instead, I nurtured an irrational grudge against it, based mostly on what little I knew of it: “I’ll have what she’s having” and “Men and women can’t be friends.” The first I find inappropriate, the second is stupid as hell (especially as a non-heterosexual). Even the knowledge that this movie has been so influential in its genre wasn’t enough to overcome my stubborn dislike of it. Until now.

When Harry Met Sally is a 1989 romantic comedy/romance (personally, I wouldn’t I’d call it a comedy) that follows the relationship between Harry and Sally, from first meeting to confessions of romantic love and happily ever after. The time frame is 1977 to 1989, featuring the two of them as recent college graduates until early 30-somethings. Interspersed throughout their story are faux documentary interviews of older couples recounting how they met.

Written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, there’s a lot about the craft of this movie that I really appreciate. The most notable part to me is probably the audio of the film: most of the sounds are diegetic. And even when there are nondiegetic sounds (usually music in transitions), you can still hear the sounds of kissing, eating, traffic, children playing, etc. I think it helps give the film a very naturalistic feeling. This feeling is also helped by the dialogue and camera work. Most of the speaking in this movie takes place between two characters at a time, and the camera typically rests on the scene with minimal cuts.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal also put in work to sell the dialogue; somehow, Harry can talk a mile a minute without sounding scripted. And there are multiple monologues in this movie that would be really good for auditions – the two standouts being Harry’s “I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees” and Sally’s “When Joe and I started seeing each other” speeches.

The characters are complex, with the story largely driven by dialogue. It’s pretty tightly focused on Harry, Sally, and their relationships, with each other and various romantic partners. I was surprised they actually parted ways after the initial road trip, and again after the second meeting on the flight to Chicago five years later. The fact that it took them 10 years to become friends adds to the realism, though – it took them that long to mature as people and stop irritating each other so much.

The first part of the story, where Harry and Sally are driving to New York City, reminded me a lot of the Before trilogy. There (and throughout the film), the conversation meanders with a verisimilitude to non-scripted conversations. I also think, in context, that the line “Men and women can’t be friends” is not as odious as it seemed to me out of context. Harry at this point is portrayed as kind of a philosophy bro – casually confessing that he spends hours a day thinking about death as apocalypse preparation – and Sally has the space to be rightly dismissive of him. It also doesn’t feel to me like the line is really the movie’s theme or thesis statement; and how could it be, when it primarily follows one couple?

(I did, however, get the collector’s edition DVD from my library, and it has a special feature called “So, Can Men and Women Really Be Friends?” that has Rob Reiner basically saying “no” right at the top, which I found surprising and irritating. Also, the brief acknowledgement of gay people – which isn’t present in the film – makes me realize how far we’ve come in terms of LGBT+ awareness and acceptance since 1989.)

My biggest complaint about this movie is the number of conversations about sex in crowded restaurants. In particular, I found the fake orgasm scene worse in context. It’s over a minute of Sally groaning, in public, attracting everyone’s attention, and it’s the only scene in the movie that makes me genuinely cringe and look away from the screen. I understand the point that’s being made, I just wish it was different.

Speaking of sex, I feel a little conflicted about the scene that tips their friendship into something else (first awkwardness, then romance). Sally going from being distraught about Joe, to turning Harry’s friendly kisses into more, to having sex and her being happy while he’s freaked out is a weird sequence of events for me. I don’t know if I would argue that there was dubious consent (and to be fair, there was a hard cut where most of the consent issues would or would not have been), but the vibes were off.

The faux documentary interviews were an interesting way to frame the movie. However, I did find it a little too cutesy when Harry and Sally showed up at the end – I think I would have been fine if the movie ended at the New Year’s party. Putting them in felt out of place and combined the faux documentary and the main narrative in a way that was unnecessary to me. I also think having the last line be “Anyway, it’s about old friends” would have been a neat parallel to Casablanca (which they watched separately-yet-together via phone and a fun split-screen sequence), and a much nicer last line than something about putting the chocolate sauce on the side.

Overall, those complains are relatively minor, and I had a great time watching this, twice. (Side note: how do reviewers watch a movie once and have so much to say about it?) In a tidy 95 minutes, this movie successfully overcame my resistance to it. I better understand its continued relevance and why so many people rave about it, and I might become one of those people, too.

Stray thoughts:

  • I think this movie fails both the Bechdel Test and the reverse Bechdel Test, which is funny and almost progressive.
  • Carrie Fisher is largely wasted as Marie, a cartoonishly obsessed woman looking for signs that her adulterous lover will leave his wife. It was still nice to see her and have Marie’s eventual relationship with Jess serve as a contrast to Harry and Sally’s. And that double phone conversation with the four of them is a highlight of the movie; it almost felt like a song to me.
  • Is the debate over men and women’s capacity to be friends dead in the internet age? Granting that it isn’t just a stupid argument (which it is), it’s easy now to be friends with people without knowing their gender.
  • Not sure I’ve ever noticed this before, but Meg Ryan acts really well with her face.

Stand-out lines:

  • “They don’t make Sunday (day of the week underwear).” “Why not?” “Because of God.”
  • “You (Harry) look like a normal person, but really you’re the Angel of Death.”
  • “You made a woman meow?”
  • “I asked her where she was when Kennedy was shot, and she said, ‘Ted Kennedy was shot?’”