Retro movie review: When Harry Met Sally

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

They say love is forever.

But is a movie about love forever? Can a romantic comedy, no matter how beautifully written and superbly well-acted, truly last as well as the object of its narrative affections?

If it’s When Harry Met Sally, and it’s written by the incomparably-talented Nora Ephron and brought to life by the singular talents of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, most certainly so.

Re-released into cinemas to mark its 30th anniversary – yes, that’s how long it’s been since Cupid’s New York-set adventures in friendship, differing gender perspectives and love first threw its gorgeously worded philosophical conundrums our way – When Harry Met Sally is every bit as incisive, funny and on point as it was when it hits US cinemas on 21 July 1989 (Australia was graced with the film on 19 October the same year).

That is, of course, in large part thanks to the shrewd, clever and elegant brilliance of the late, great Nora Ephron, whose screenplay continues to enchant and delight with wordplay and insight to perfectly-crafted that keeping track of every superlative line or moment of exquisitely-good comedic timing becomes next to near impossible.

Put simply, When Harry Met Sally is a classic precisely because not only does it tell the kind of story that we all want to see – love overcoming all obstacles, including peoples’ inability to see what is palpably right before them – it does it in such a way that you can’t help but relate to every last word said or sentiment expressed.

Ephron’s writing is a thing of beauty and cleverness, as poetic as you could possibly hope for, but it is also relatable, that rare piece of superlative writing that doesn’t lose its intent and message in a sea of luminously-lustrous and giddily snappy oneliners.

That, I think, is the key to its genius and longevity.

When Harry Met Sally is that perfect marriage – pun intended especially given the enchanting vox pops of long-lasting couples that punctuate the film with a breathy romantic earnestness and joy – of word and sentiment, lofty thought and grounded experience, a romantic comedy that hands us the ideal picture of things while simultaneously acknowledging that life is rarely that easy or uncomplicated.

But what are superb words without equally superb people to deliver them?

This is where one time “America’s Sweetheart” Meg Ryan, who towards the end chafed at her romantic comedy crown, and gifted comedian Billy Crystal prove so critically important.

They, along with a pinpoint perfect Carrie Fisher, as Sally’s best friend Marie, and Bruno Kirby as Harry’s best mate Jess, take Ephron’s emotionally-resonant and laugh-out-loud funny and thoughtful words and give extra vivacity and life not to mention the kind of relatability and truthfulness that eleveates When Harry Met Sally far above mere mortal rom-coms.

We may not have all lived that charmed New York existence, where walks through autumnal parks looks like rare works of startlingly-beautiful art and New Year’s Eve is all tuxedos, evening dresses and just-so filled glasses of champagne, but we have all, at one point or another wondered if that special friend might be that one-in-a-lifetime someone.

Just like Harry and Sally, who spend their long-lived friendship keeping the very idea of love between them at arm’s length – it’s not, of course, but the story they tell themselves is that it is and that’s reflective of the tall tales we often tell ourselves to avoid facing the truth – we wonder if, reject the very idea of it, before throwing the idea back in contention and … well, often nothing.

That’s not what happens with Harry and Sally, naturally, who eventually, and trust me if you’ve paying even passing attention to rom-coms, this is no spoiler, get their much put off happy ever after; but the truth is, they come incredibly close to not embracing the very thing they tell themselves and each other isn’t there.

Part of that blindness is fear, but part of its stems from a philosophy expounded by Harry when Sally and he drive from Chicago post-university to begin new lives in New York, that men and women can’t just be friends, that sex will always enter the big picture and turn the platonic, the mutually-supportive, sexual.

Sally poo poos the idea but Harry holds fast to the thesis; that is until a major life change sees him grow close to Sally who is at a point in her life where a friend, an unconditional, always-there friend, is more important than holding fast to a position she assumed many years earlier.

In their witty back and forths, which are as warmhearted as they are word-perfectly amusing, we are served up down to earth treatises on gender politics, love, friendship and a recurring idea that men and women see love and sex from wholly different vantage points.

Neither Harry nor Sally disagree with this, but it’s the way they respond to this mutually-agreed life truth that proves much of the rapid-fire wit and intelligence that underpins this film.

When Harry Met Sally also soars visually too.

From the stunning scenes set around a new York straight from Ephron’s central casting, through to the small moments of intimacy and close friendship between Harry and Sally – there’s one New Year’s Eve where they’re dancing cheek-to-cheek and the camera encircles them repeatedly, we see their non-committal replaced with something more thoughtful and longing – through straight out comedic moments (Marie and Jess jumping into the taxi together after saying they’ll take it slow is a gem), When Harry Met Sally is a skillfully put-together piece of rom-com perfection.

It not only looks and sounds stunning, but the music composed solely of big band classics, sung mostly by a then up-and-coming Harry Connick Jr., creates the sort of gorgeous warm hug of an ambiance that a rom-com like When Harry Met Sally is crying out for.

Taken together, all these elements come together to create a true classic, the type of film that, like love itself, endures far beyond whim and beyond, tropes and trends, so eternally-applicable and universally relatable, couched in language that is funny and romantic all at once, that it’s no wonder that thirty years we are still very grateful that Harry met Sally and lived, eventually anyway, happily ever after.

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