Film & TV Muse

When Harry Met Sally: The perfect rom-com?

Andrew Young takes another look at one of the all-time great romantic comedies as its 30th anniversary looms

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Image Credit: Palace Pictures

I think it would be reasonable to assume that most people have their favourite rom-com. From classic examples like The Apartment to anything with a Richard Curtis script and Hugh Grant affably poncing around with his floppy hair and bumbling charm, the romantic comedy is a genre that will often satisfy filmgoers like no other. The blend of optimistic love story and a few laugh-out-loud jokes makes for a sweetness found in few other films. This perfect blend, however, is almost impossible to find. Many romantic comedies can be an entertaining diversion for a couple of hours but very few stick in our memories and worm their way into our hearts.

Next month marks 30 years since the release of When Harry Met Sally, directed by Rob Reiner from Nora Ephron’s fantastic script. It seems that now is an appropriate time to explain why When Harry Met Sally is one of the all-time great romantic comedies, ticking all the necessary boxes and more. For those of you that are not in the know, the film begins with the titular characters driving to New York together, both hoping to ignite their lives in the big city. At this point they have never met before and only share a car because Harry is dating one of Sally’s friends and they both need a ride. It is safe to say that they do not get on straight away. Pretty much hating each other from the off, they don’t see each other again for years. Their lives then keep on colliding as they become close friends and...

When I try to explain to people why When Harry Met Sally is arguably the ruler of the rom-com world I boil it down to two points: it is genuinely funny and genuinely romantic. You would think that these things would be a pre-requisite for a romantic comedy, but so often films fall short of managing to achieve both. The easier box to tick, on the evidence, is the comedy. When Harry Met Sally, at its best, is hilarious and its worst consistently witty. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are excellent in the lead roles, with Crystal’s background as a stand-up and sitcom star coming through in his dry delivery and dead-pan facial expressions. Nora Ephron’s script riffs well on the ‘opposites attract’ trope with Harry’s playing the cynic and Sally the romantic in a continuous back-and-forth of sexual chemistry veiled by insults. With the humour in Ephron’s script the film would be a success, but it is the genuineness of the love story that elevates When Harry Met Sally.

Having the authenticity to achieve real swooning romance is a task few rom-coms pull off. As much as I love Richard Curtis and I think he is a very talented man, I find the romance in his films somewhat lacking. Four Weddings and a Funeral, for example, is at times hilarious and is a sweet, entertaining film, but do we really buy into the relationship between Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell’s characters? The spark lacking in the film’s central relationship is usually put down to MacDowell’s oft-berated performance, but even a better turn such as Julia Roberts’ in Notting Hill could not have made the relationship feel entirely authentic. The strongest parts of About Time, one of Curtis’ more recent films and a good one at that, come when it is not trying to be a rom-com anymore. The central romance is quite funny and quite endearing, but it is the father-son relationship that takes over the narrative which tugs at the heartstrings.

The difficulty of getting a romantic pairing to feel authentic and endearing is the hardest part of a rom-com, and it is something that When Harry Met Sally nails. This comes down to two things. Firstly, the chemistry between Crystal and Ryan is great. From the off, their bickering has undertones of affection. It is a delight to watch Harry tease out information and personality from the initially guarded Sally. It is not long after they meet that their back-and-forth opens her up enough to perform the now-famous “orgasm scene” one of the film’s many highlights.

The other key to the film’s romance, which many rom-coms forget, is that to really invest in a love story we need to know the characters as people. For a lot of the film we follow Harry and Sally’s separate narratives, watching them change and grow individually. Harry is for some time an unlikable character, a womaniser and full of arrogance, but changes as the film goes on. One of Ephron’s masterstrokes however is in declining to make Sally the woman that ‘saves’ Harry, teaching him to love for real and become a monogamist. This journey happens earlier on in the film for Harry, evolving him as a person without lapsing into a clichéd relationship between the two. Seeing their previous relationships in more than a passing humorous way means that we can invest in Harry and Sally’s eventual relationship more because they feel like real people who bring real stories to their relationship. The film properly shows us that they exist in a world outside of their relationship.

The script is perfectly focussed too, giving us enough time with the ‘funny sidekick’ best friends (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby) for some laughs, but never straying far from the central relationship. It is the antithesis of the clichéd Valentine’s Day, that zips through so many stories that very few of them feel authentic or make us actually care at all about the characters. The brilliance of When Harry Met Sally is that these are two people we have grown to know as individuals and so its finale, corny as it may sound were I to describe it, lands perfectly.

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