What a moment in time this film marks. Meg Ryan’s first “Meg Ryan” role (as in the cute-as-a-button, cheery, romantic sweetheart role she played again and again in the 90s, not that there’s anything wrong with that), and arguably Billy Crystal’s only successful “leading man” role. Billy Crystal as a cinematic romantic lead? It’s impossible to understand, even while watching this 1989 film, and yet, he pulls it off. Admirably.
The premise of this Nora Ephron/Rob Reiner film was ultimately to answer the question it posed: can a man and a woman ever just be friends, or does sex always have to be part of the relationship? Interestingly, the answer it gave was “actually, no, they can’t,” as Harry and Sally ended up together. So there’s no new ground broken there. And if you’ve ever seen a Woody Allen film you’ll know there’s not much ground broken in the lightning-fast dialog and neurotic leading-man character, either. No matter. This film is beloved because it’s a wonderful, and very realistic, romance.
The thrill lies in the fact that the audience can see that Harry and Sally, two friends who take years to realize they are meant to be together, are made for one another. That’s a thrill because we really, truly, believe that Harry and Sally themselves don’t see it. Movies about boy-girl best friends who realize that their soul mate has been right in front of their nose all along are a dime a dozen. But usually, the plot arc is painfully obvious and the main characters just seem clueless and dopey in their failure to see their destiny coming at them from a mile away.
Harry and Sally are different. They are both sensible, worldly people who really and truly don’t see one another as romantic fodder for awhile. Maybe it’s because, as a couple, they don’t look like they are Hollywood-made for each other (is he taller than she is? Maybe, but if she really teased her hair 80s style he wouldn’t be). In short, they look like a real couple. As do their friends, Marie and Jess (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby).
Their problems and situations seem real, too—take the scene in which Sally realizes that her ex-boyfriend does want to get married; just not to her. Ouch. Or the scene in which Harry bumps into his ex, who has happily moved on. Ouch again. And then there’s the pop-culture touchstone scene in the diner—right, that one. So much of this film rings true.
Another reason to love When Harry Met Sally is the soundtrack. The music is so old-school in its use of standards like “I Could Write a Book,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” and of course “It Had to be You” (which many a Gen-Xer used as her wedding dance only to discover that it was one of the most common wedding songs of the late 90s, when girls who had been in high school when the film came out were getting to wedding age. Not that I’d know anything about all that…).
The title alone brings a smile to many a movie-fan’s eye. Followed up by a sigh, perhaps, and comment about what a “great movie” it is. Mention it in a conversation and you’ll see what I mean. And then get ready for some mischievous person to bring up the “I’ll-have-what-she’s-having” scene and everyone else to nod indulgently. The fact that that particular scene has become such a cliché just proves how influential this film was.
About the only thing that seems outdated in this film is Meg Ryan’s hair, or of course the use of corded phones and absence of computers. But the rest of When Harry Met Sally—the dialog, the soundtrack, and certainly the characters and their relationship—is as fresh for Valentine’s Day 2011 as it was for Valentine’s Day 1989.
Watch the When Harry Met Sally trailer: