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.