Weekend Film Recommendation: When Harry Met Sally

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A few years ago, I recommended Steve Martin’s effort to make a Woody Allen movie (L.A. Story). This week, I recommend Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s attempt to do the same: When Harry Met Sally.

In one of the signature romantic comedies of the 1980s, college students Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet not-so-cute on a long drive east. He is slovenly, self-involved and a bit of a pig in his views of women. She is uptight, judgmental and a million miles from being in touch with her feelings. They grate on each other during the road trip and forget about each afterwards, until a chance meeting some years later. Harry, chastened by a messy divorce, has become less smug and more likeable to Sally. Sally in contrast thinks she has found enduring love with Joe (Steven Ford), making romance with Harry out of the question. With the possibility of a sexual relationship out of the way (or is it?), they can develop (or can they?) something neither of them has had before: A platonic, intimate friendship with a member of the opposite sex.

The extremely positive audience reaction to this funny, warm film was a surprise to its makers in 1989, but When Harry Met Sally is now widely considered a treasure of the genre. The leads create appealing, funny characters (much on set ad libbing helped enormously, making an amusing script even moreso). Strong supporting work by the two best friend foil characters is another asset (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher), not least because Ephron’s script is perceptive and honest about how men and women talk about each other when the other sex isn’t around.

As a director, Reiner — on whose dating experiences this film is partly based — wisely puts significant faith in his actors, which is richly rewarded. In preparing for the film he interviewed long-standing couples about their marriages, and adapted these stories into charming inserts in which the mysteries of love are explained by those for whom it all worked out in the end.

This film mirrors Woody Allen’s magnificent Annie Hall so closely in plot, location, themes – even the opening credits and music – that it’s hard not to compare the two films. Annie Hall has more big laughs and although Crystal and Ryan are good they are simply not performers at the level of Allen and Keaton. As for comedic tone, Annie Hall has some bite whereas When Harry Met Sally — consistent with the dominant style of its era — is punch-pulling fluff; viewer preferences for style of humor will make one or the other movie a more rewarding experience, and de gustibus non est disputandum.

But in one respect, the more recent film leaves Annie Hall in the dust. Allen’s film is made entirely from his male point of view, but the Ephron-scripted When Harry Met Sally is more gender-balanced in its take on heterosexual romance and also develops its female characters more fully. The result is a winning date movie, whether it’s a first date or a 30th anniversary.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: When Harry Met Sally”

  1. The most famous line in modern movies is probably "I'll be back," by Arnold in Terminator. But not far behind, and by far my favorite, is "I'll have what she's having," spoken by Estelle Reiner. For me, that scene in Katz's makes this a must-see film.

    And BTW, that scene totally substantiates your final paragraph.

  2. I'm going to have to disagree about Woody Allen. The overwhelming majority of his movies that I've seen are filled with a smugness that I find extremely off-putting. They display all of Allen's insecurities, which serve to demonstrate that he isn't a very appealing person. While there are many comedies that succeed by being about unappealing protagonists, his don't.

    Contrast that with Rob Reiner. Whatever other qualities he has as a director, his movies feature characters that are, at heart, fundamentally decent people. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls may all be profoundly stupid, but they are also generous and care about those around them. I think it's hard to overestimate how influential All in the Family, and the portrayal of Archie Bunker as more than just a racist caricature, was on Reiner, though that's probably hard to separate from the influence Carl Reiner had on his son in general.

    The two exceptions I find among Woody Allen's movies, that I really like, don't fit in with the rest of his work. The first, The Purple Rose of Cairo, doesn't even have Allen as an actor. It consequently focuses on human issues rather than Allen's issues. The second, which I find far funnier than anything else he's done, is The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. While Allen is a part of the cast, it's in a role very different from his usual. He's still something of a nebbish, but one I can actually sympathize with, and Allen resists the urge to make the film about himself.

    Maybe he should have made more movies with a color in the title.

    1. I think Woody Allen is one of the great American film makers, but you are by no means alone in finding his oeuvre off-putting.

  3. I think Annie Hall is one of Allen's stronger female characters (if I recall, Keaton won a Best Actress? I know there's a thing called Google….hold on….oh wow, Best Director as well, Best Writing, and we know it won Best Picture). So there's plenty of Allen-centric misogyny across his opuses, or wait, do I mean opi or opae…..but I'm not sure it's fair to single out Annie Hall. Or Hannah And Her Sisters. Cardboard cut-out female roles in other films? Check. Annie Hall? Nope.

    That being said, yeah, When Harry Met Sally is as good a romantic comedy as anything since Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

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