Robert Cettl’s review:
There have been many classic romances in the cinema. Every generation seems to bring its own redefinition of romance, from Brief Encounter to Love Story. What remains central to these films, but often unsaid is the underlying difference in attitudes between men and women and how these can be tempered by love. These differences and how men relate to women are central to When Harry Met Sally, the film which cemented the careers of its performers, director and writer. Indeed, the film was considered one of the most savvy and sophisticated films for adults in the age of the adolescent-oriented Hollywood blockbuster (it was released in the year of Batman). It grew primarily out of conversations between director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron just as Reiner, newly divorced, was experiencing the relationship game afresh. Founded thus on personal experience, the film in part seemed a continuation of Reiner’s earlier film The Sure Thing, which also explored gender expectations and attitudes but this time related to an adolescent coming of age context. Whatever the relevance of When Harry Met Sally in Reiner’s growing body of films, it remains a cultural point of reference and comparison for all romantic comedies that have followed it. It is thus something of a modern benchmark.
The film begins in the late 1970s, when two University of Chicago graduates (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) share a car trip to New York City, intending to build their respective careers and lives there. Rather than get along, they seem to conclude that they cannot be friends and (Ryan especially) dislike each other, although Crystal seems more indifferent. Many years later they run into each other at an airport and share a plan ride. Again, Ryan wants to distance herself from him. Years later they meet again, although they are by now in their 30s and more experienced in the ways of life. Crystal in particular has warmed to people (although his marriage has dissolved) and is shedding his indifference: when he meets Ryan again the two of them slowly become friends. At a New Years Eve party the two of them share a dance and it is clear that they have feelings beyond friendship. They each have best friends (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) whom they want each other to date, but the friends end up with each other and marry. When Ryan receives word that her former boyfriend is getting married, she is distraught and Harry consoles her. They then do the one intimate thing that threatens to transform or end their friendship. They both consider it a mistake, but afterwards are awkward with each other. Ryan turns away from Crystal who tries to win her back, as he realizes how much her love and friendship means to him.
When Harry Met Sally is one of the great romantic movies. It is perhaps the first great modern one in that its characters are unusually expressive about their feelings towards sex and friendship. There lies the film’s central question – whether men and women can really be just friends or if sexual desire and sexual politics will always transform the friendship into something else, for better or worse. However, the film uses this question of friendship as a point from which to explore the differences between the genders. In a sense it is also about meetings and confrontations and the evolving process of romantic communication and need. Sex is treated almost as a make or break point, a point of transition in a relationship, one that is known inherently by each gender but for different reasons. It may mean the end of friendship, but it need not mean the end of a relationship, merely its transformation into something greater. But what remains an imperative is the need to talk about it, for communication and sharing may contribute to a greater understanding and openness. The frank clash between male and female viewpoints is also a source of comedy in the film, summed up best in the fake orgasm scene, which has become one of the most remembered scenes in recent years. It is central for it tackles the gap between male and female experience, attitude and expectation regarding their mutual congress.
Initially a cold man, Crystal grows in warmth and even compassion as he ages, although remains a troubled person, although never quite the neurotic that is Woody Allen for instance, although Allen’s influence on the film is evident. Modern relationships are a game of sorts, but one that still is rectified seemingly only by marriage and the resolve of two people to remain together for life. As admirable as that sentiment may be, it reflects the essentially old-fashioned sentimentality that underlies the film and much of screenwriter Nora Ephron’s later work as writer and director also. Beneath the increased sexual openness and communication lie a desire for love and romance that seems innate in human beings. It is this that the film celebrates wholeheartedly, exposing all the unusual trimmings and attitudes that have arisen out of the so-called gender gap. Regardless though, men and women despite their differences will seemingly always want to meet the right person, even if it takes some men perhaps a little longer to acknowledge it. Wisdom, experience and the desire to understand and move beyond broken relationships propel understanding in this film. Thus, with experience, Ryan warms to Harry’s cynical humour. Friendship precedes love in the case of Crystal and Ryan, but it is sex that remains the transition point.