Can men and women ever be merely friends, without the temptation of sex rearing its ugly head? This is the question that this movie so famously posed - and so glibly answered - almost fifteen years ago. As it follows the progression of Harry and Sally - a pair of charming, if neurotic, Manhattanites - from enemies to confidants to lovers, it seems to smugly relish the fact that it has proven its point: men and women can never just "be friends" - sex is always the bond that unites them. But the film is so manipulative, so dogged in its pursuit of this goal, that it never appears an alternative position was ever considered. So, as philosophy, chalk When Harry Met Sally up to around zilch.
Now, disregard the above paragraph. Because When Harry Met Sally makes up for its slights to credibility and lack of rigorous thought by being easily the funniest movie of its year (1989). This humor flows mainly from the beautifully crafted scenes and dialogue; indeed, each scene is a dialogue set piece (and could be transferred to the stage quite easily - surprising no one's ever done it, actually), which flows with the firm and confident rapidity of a 20th century Shaw or Oscar Wilde. Of course, this approach has its downside, too: mainly that the lead characters seem less and less like real people and more like tools for the brilliant lines and conceits of the screenwriter (Nora Ephron - never better; in fact, never even remotely close ever again). This may have something to do with the film's inability to seem completely real or true to human nature as it actually plays out - but with lines like these, who's complaining?
For, what is great about the movie is not its originality (it steals from all over, especially Woody Allen movies, and the few ideas it can truly call its own are, as I've said, not particularly bright or well-thought out), but its ability to hone in on stereotypes of character and situation and offer pithy and hilarious precis of the male-female condition through the witty banter and interaction of its characters. As such, the film is less like a conventional movie and more like a stand-up routine dealing with life and love in the Big City: it is to be judged not by its content, but by the dexterity of its put-ons and one-liners. (It is not surprising, for example, that several of its set-pieces and comic notions were revisited just a few years later, and in much the same manner, on "Seinfeld".) In that regard, it succeeds flawlessly.
Just think of all the conventions it gets in, and skewers: the one-track mind male (Harry); the "sensitive" and practical female, repulsed yet intrigued by said male (Sally); the emotionally unsettled mistress playing the field (Carrie Fisher, who keeps an index card file of "available" men); the live-ins who can't "commit" (Sally and her ex-boyfriend); women's concern with middle age and their biological clock ("I'm gonna be 40," weeps Sally. "When?" asks Harry. "Someday."); the male's tendency to skip out after making love; the horror and unpredictability of blind dates; and, in a scene which is almost passe to mention anymore, women's ability to fake orgasm. The way this film jumps from one familiar convention to another would be embarrassing if it weren't for the fact that each one is handled with such economy, humor and grace.
Billy Crystal acquits himself well as Harry - predictably, perhaps, as it's a part tailor made for a standup comedian. Still, seeing him in this after years of half-baked movies and fawning Oscar presentations, it's a revelation how glib and unlikable he can allow himself to be . . . and *still* be likable. Yo, Billy, if you're listening out there: try incorporating some of Harry's darker shadings and more egocentric traits into your future roles; it gives you a more complete palette to work from and keeps you from being too generic and schticky. And your charm and humor will always shine through anyway.
If Billy needs to edge a little bit closer back to Harry, though, Meg Ryan needs to get Sally completely out of her system. This role, deservedly, made her a star - but she has tried to go back to this particular well once too many times, and it's become way too familiar: you know, the adorable, bright-eyed bit - mentally disheveled, prissy around the edges with just a wisp of klutziness, all topped by that cute, mega-watt smile. It has become now the "Meg Ryan" character, but back when Sally came along it was still fresh, and it was tied to a particular personality. Ryan gives Sally a shy-cum-toughness as well as a moody, slightly cynical and self-deprecating wit that is just totally right. She and Crystal play off each other like two old pros, and they weave in and out of some charming and hilarious verbal music.
It's funny, but I just recently saw this movie on a Saturday afternoon television marathon of "Romantic Weepies" - and it struck me as an odd designation, because this movie is anything but a weeper. It takes a clear-eyed, almost cynical view of love and companionship, and creates around it a charming tapestry of bracing wit and crunching dialogue. So save the violins and the handkerchiefs for romantic comedies less sure on their feet - whose deficiency in wit must be made up for by a surfeit of melodrama and manipulation. This movie is manipulative too, of course, but its manipulation is almost beside the point. It's the laughs along the way we remember here, not the big kiss or the grand embrace. That Harry and Sally were "meant" for each other and that the film "proves" it is much less important than the fact that Sally does one hell of a great orgasm.
Waiter, I'll have what they're having . . .