Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Subtle Perfection Of A Romantic Comedy Done Right: When Harry Met Sally. . .

The Good: Acting, Romance, Characters, Humor holds up over many viewings, Assembly, Direction
The Bad: Somewhat obvious set up (I'm stretching here!), None in truth
The Basics: Who are you and why haven't you seen this classic, perfect romantic comedy yet?! Funny, charming and well-developed, When Harry Met Sally. . . is a winner.

Romantic comedies tend to suffer in my reviews because the average romantic comedy is predictable beyond belief and when you've seen it once, you've seen it a hundred times. In short, because most romantic comedies are about the establishment of a romantic relationship and usually who the characters will end up with is pretty much a function of casting (i.e. usually the two top-billed performers are the ones who hook up), there's little surprise to most romantic comedies. The way the most successful romantic comedies get around that is by creating unique and interesting characters, like in Love Actually (reviewed here!) and/or playing with the notion of a romantic comedy exploding the limitations of the genre, like The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love (reviewed here!). One of the few romantic comedies that does this perfectly is When Harry Met Sally. . .

Harry Burns meets Sally Albright when they split driving responsibilities on a twelve hour drive to New York where they are starting their post college lives. Harry annoys Sally almost the entire way. Their trip concludes with Sally wishing they could be friends but Harry declaring that men and women cannot just be friends and they part way. Years later, Sally and Harry run into one another on a flight and Harry amends his prior comment; women and men can be friends if both are in relationships, so they can now be friends. Harry's wife soon leaves him, however, and Sally's relationship falls apart, too. They spend years becoming better and better friends while their mutual friends Marie and Jess fall in love and marry. As their friendship grows, they move toward an inevitable romantic relationship, but - of course - there are complications . . .

What makes When Harry Met Sally. . . work so well is that it follows an excruciatingly realistic pace. While so many romantic comedies rush into sex, relationship and forced conflict, this is a film that explores the conflict of various relationships and delays the romance for a long time. Featuring interstitials of couples telling how they fell in love between the various time jumps, When Harry Met Sally. . . takes the time to develop an actual friendship between the protagonists that makes their relationship viable, interesting and an intriguing basis for love. In short, by the time Harry and Sally start actually moving toward a relationship, they feel like they are already in a meaningful one.

It works extraordinarily well and this is one of the films that succeeds admirably because the lead actors have genuine chemistry. The characters spend much of the movie looking in every direction but each other and that makes for an interesting character study. Both are well defined and as they share common interests, like watching "Casablanca" together in their respective apartments by having each other on the line while viewing it, the viewer enjoys watching them bond.

These are two characters genuinely relating and that's something that we rarely see in films these days. Too often the chemistry between characters or actors is assumed. Far too often the characters in a romantic comedy follow the three date, have sex, be in a relationship formula - though lately, there is a tendency toward characters to "slip" and have sex on the first date and that provides much of what is supposed to be the comedy. Sigh. When Harry Met Sally. . . is still something different in that regard. Harry and Sally are around one another for years before romance even enters into their dialogue.

In some ways, this is also one of the last successful "odd couple" type pairings. Sally has underwear for each day of the week and a laundry list of dietary concerns. Harry is generally slovenly (I still laugh every time he starts spitting grape seeds out of the car while the window is still up). Harry is quirky and opens Sally up to absurdity like spending a day speaking in an accent while wandering a museum, Sally brings a sense of calm and care to Harry's life and opens him up to a broader life philosophy.

The relationship between Harry and Sally is mirrored by the much quicker, but no less solid, relationship between Marie and Jess. They are funny and watching their foibles realistically delays Sally and Harry from rushing their relationship. Moreover, it keeps the pace of the movie bearable. As Harry and Sally struggle for years to relate and befriend one another and move past their difficulties of past relationships, Marie and Jess offer a very satisfying pair to sink some of our hopes into. We accept the delay of the protagonists because the world they live in is still filled with less tenuous love and that makes the movie work.

As well, there's a wonderful moment when Jess and Marie turn to one another and say "Promise me I'll never be single again!" that is just beautiful. Jess is played by Bruno Kirby and it's refreshing to see such a realistic-looking adult get such a decent role. I'm not staying that Kirby stands out as the luckiest character actor in a long time to be married off (in the movie) to Carrie Fisher, but it's nice to see people who don't have the same homogenous "desperate to look young and sexy" look in movies. Carrie Fisher gives a memorable performance as Marie and it's nice to see her in a role that is so different from the nagging Princess Leia that made her career. Here she is mature, articulate, emotionally connected and a delight to watch.

Much of the movie hinges on Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as Harry and Sally. Ryan's performance in this movie made her the darling of romantic comedies for almost a decade and it's easy to see why. In When Harry Met Sally. . ., Ryan is cute, articulate and her neurosis is fun to watch for most viewers. She plays the role with a simple, "good American girl" quality that she effortlessly portrays and does so well.

Ryan has surprisingly good on-screen chemistry with costar Billy Crystal. Crystal plays the oddball well and here he keeps it in check enough to create a genuine and memorable character. He slouches through the role and everything that comes out of his mouth, no matter how contrary to our personal experience he presents as perfectly credible, such is the strength of his performance. Even if the viewer does not believe what he is saying, we believe Harry believes his own philosophies. That's great acting on Crystal's part.

When Harry Met Sally. . . was written by Nora Ephron and she shows an excellent balance in her characterizations. Neither of the characters feels like they were written in a way that is inorganic (ever watched a movie where a male character says something and it pulls you out of the movie and you say "That line was written by a woman?" There's nothing like that in this script!). Director Rob Reiner does an excellent job keeping the movie flowing whenever it seems like it could fall into a slow point.

At the end of the day, this is a perfect romantic comedy and well worth the time and attention of all audiences. It shows an adult story of two people falling in love over a long period of time that does not feel so long. Told with humor that holds up over multiple viewings and great characters, When Harry Met Sally. . . is a must-see!

For other romantic comedies, please visit my reviews of:
Chasing Amy
The 40 Year Old Virgin
Valentine’s Day


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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