When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally. Castle Rock Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I know about something like two scenes from this movie. Apparently it explores the subtlety between friendship and romance, which is an issue presently on my mind as well.

From the tagline, I’m worried this will be the poster movie for the “friends with benefits” concept, or Zack and Miri Make a Porno without the audacity, but it has a good reputation.

After watching the movie:

Harry and Sally first meet as complete strangers freshly graduated from the University of Chicago, the pair of them sharing a car as they move to New York. On the way, he happens to mention that he finds her attractive. She thinks he’s making a pass at her, but he insists it’s just a compliment, and lays down a philosophy that haunts their entire relationship: “men and women cannot be just friends, because of the possibility that they could have sex.” Over a series of years, their paths cross occasionally, and then they finally enter into a strictly platonic friendship when both on the rebound from breakups. Over some more years, it starts to become less platonic, though neither will admit it. Until they reach the point where they have to come to terms with what they have.

This is a film that could probably work as a stage play. There are a few montages, and at least one scene where the cinematography is important, but overall, the focus is on what the characters are saying. Especially in the first act, where a lot of philosophy is laid down, the dialogue is the only thing that’s important. The first act could be a radio play. Fortunately, the writing is very strong. It’s not natural, but it’s the way we like to believe we talk.

The stages of the characters’ relationship are punctuated with documentary-style interviews with couples in their 70s or 80s, talking about how they met and how they were destined for each other. I’m not sure if each couple’s story is specifically linked in some way to the next chapter, but they cleanse the palate for a new beginning.

I didn’t pay much attention to how the film shows the years passing beyond watching Billy Crystal age. I think they did it mostly with his hair. It was shocking to see the man look the part of a newly graduated bachelor of whatever. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used makeup on top of it, but it was most clearly visible in his hair. Especially for the period where he wears a beard.

The acting brought out the heart of the writing, I think. In addition to a decade-spanning performance by Crystal and Ryan, their best friends are played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher, and serve as their sounding boards, and as an echo of their ticking biological clocks.

This movie tries to explore a fundamental question about relationships, and then, instead of answering it, takes the predictable path. As someone pondering the existential underpinnings of the film, I would have liked the third act’s events to be the focus, but instead it comes down to the usual Hollywood “will these people ever realize they’re perfect for each other” plot. Which is probably for the best. I could go on about the developmental effects of inevitable happy endings on audiences, but that is not the fault of this movie. It’s a quirky, sentimental film about the question nobody thinks about, and an enjoyable watch.


Watch this movie: with a friend.

Don’t watch this movie: with a friend. Wait…

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