When Harry Met Sally is a romantic comedy, released in 1989 to critical and commercial success. The film follows the relationship between two unlikely friends, Harry and Sally (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan), who connect through a mutual friend and embark on a series of unlikely meetings over the next decade, wrestling with what their relationship means. The film explores the nature of relationships, asking the question of how love reveals itself, even to those who try to resist it.
Frankly, the film boasts one of the most well written screenplays I’ve ever had the pleasure to take in. It has just the right combination of traditional rom-com elements; principally the certifiable level of cheese and wisecracks; as well as genuine sophistication in it’s plot devices and transitional shots. The standout aspect of the writing was definitely the dialogue. Head screenwriter Nora Ephron garnered an academy award nomination for her work, in film dominated by snappy, intelligent dialogue, to the extent that I was left wondering how Aaron Sorkin could possible have written this film before A Few Good Men was even conceived. Its no small surprise, therefore, that the man who directed the film would go on to be a longtime collaborator of Sorkin’s. I speak, of course, of Rob Reiner, who was also nominated for a Golden Globe for outstanding direction that year. Reiner’s rubberstamp is obvious, particularly in Crystal’s deliveries and the signature tracking shots.
On a more personal, or at any rate, less technical level, the film really manages to sell the story. Rom-coms don’t historically have an affinity with nuance and sophistication. The exceptions, however, are those that manage to blend a theoretically more trivial plotline the sincerity and gravitas, and When Harry Met Sally most certainly does that. Crystal and Ryan were both nominated alongside their director for respective Golden Globes, as a result of performances that brought depth to their characters’ internal struggles. They are aided in the process by solid shifts from Bruno Kirby and, incredibly, Carrie Fisher (rest in peace General Organa); who play classic seconds to our main couple. The inclusion of these characters does, at first, seem somewhat unnecessary. They serve at first only to set the scenarios of during the time jumps at the beginning of the film, for which no more than a faceless cameo would have been required. Only later in the film does their importance come to light; without spoiling, one could say that their motivations prove instrumental in the inevitable resolution to Harry and Sally’s apprehension to starting a relationship.
That apprehension is what allows the writing to wring the most out of the film, a truly electric level of tension for which the credit must go to Mr. Reiner. The whole idea of the film is that it is not possible for men and women to be ‘just friends’, suggesting that sexual desire inevitably trumps social barriers. This premise is fascinating in and of itself, especially as a teenager of the 21st century, where casual ‘hookup culture’ tends to eliminate the tendency for meaningful relationship in the youth. The film goes on to establish a relationship between the two protagonists that oozes romantic tension, far more so than your average romantic comedy. The cinematography is chiefly responsible for this, complimented, of course, by excellent performances by Crystal and Ryan. Reiner has chosen tight focus shots throughout the film, often in filler scenes and even in some places that would ordinarily come across as downright strange, such as development track shots. The chemistry between the two actors and a masterful use of visual signals sells their relationship in a way that few other rom-coms ever have, selling the story to the audience and maximizing the impact of the same.
It’s easy to forget in a rom-com that the stories they tell can have weight, and if told properly, can capture an audience’s attention the way no other genre is capable. Rom-coms tell stories of the most relatable, most authentic kinds, that, because of a culture of apathy towards those stories, have been deemed unsophisticated. Love, subsequent awkwardness, and subsequent mistakes are a common thing. Just because the way it happens can be funny doesn’t have to make it less real, and When Harry Met Sally proved beyond a doubt that when that kind of story is told the right way, the result can be special. A real treat, full of overwhelmingly smart dialogue, personable characters, and a situation that provokes pause between laughs. That, is what rom-com filmmaking should be.
Aman’s Rating: 83/100 Aryamaan’s Rating: 76/100