Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Favorite Movies: 3 – When Harry Met Sally

I spent years not really seeing When Harry Met Sally.

Home from college one summer, it came on cable and I started watching, just for something to do. About an hour into it, my parents came home (yes, I lived with my parents during the summer to save money), and we got to talking and I shut the movie off.

A couple of years later, a friend of mine showed it at an in-dorm movie night… except that she’d taped it off cable, and in the last ten minutes of the movie, the tape had run out, and so she had to put in a different tape, and we had missed two minutes of the movie.

Granted, they weren’t critical minutes. Harry had just realized who he was in love with, and was running there, which is supposed to build suspence, but, well, you know.

It’s a romantic comedy. They mostly only end one way. (My Best Friend’s Wedding is one of the few exceptions.)

Through those two semi-viewings, I did come to realize that a) I liked it a lot, and b) it was a strong reflection of a relationship-that-was-not-a-relationship that I was in at the time.

Later that same year, I got a pair of pants for my birthday, and they didn’t fit. So I took them back to Target, and they offered me store credit, and instead of buying more pants I bought a copy of When Harry Met Sally.

If you’ve never seen the movie, well, here’s a warning: It’s pretty plot-less.

If you ask the folks who made the movie, they’ll tell you it’s about Harry and Sally, who become friends, but know that sleeping together would probably be a bad idea. Then they sleep together.

Mind you, that’s not the actual plot, because if it was, the movie would be about 20 minutes long, since the sleeping together thing doesn’t happen until the movie is getting pretty close to being over.

What most interests me about the movie is the fact that, aside from being plotless, it has a few other flaws that should prevent it from being the classic that it is… and those are the lessons I most remember from watching this flick.


Don’t get me wrong. Billy Crystal? Meg Ryan? Nice people, as far as I know. Talented people, sure.

But at the time, neither of them was the biggest thing in the world. Billy Crystal had come off Saturday Night Live, and granted, they loved him there, but imagine in Adam Sandler had left SNL and then gone on to star in a very adult, thoughtful romantic comedy.

Didn’t happen. Adam took all his boy-ish rage and turned it into the Adam Sandler brand.

Billy went for something deeper. And he pulled it off.

Meg Ryan, sadly, filled her role a little too well, as the cute pixie-type girl. She played that role year after year, until she started to get too old, and then she kind of wrecked her poor face in an attempt to keep looking cute and pixie-like.

But she wasn't really much of a star, either. This was the woman who had been in things like Amityville 3-D.

And yet, the movie was good, so people flocked, and now it’s a classic.

Second lesson:


Harry and Sally meet. They walk away from each other. They meet again. They walk away from each other.

They meet again.

This is not really a plot. But the little details of what happens at each of these meetings, and the dialogue, and the way… but I’ll come back to that.

Great dialogue, interesting characters. People you kind of want to hang out with. You can make a movie with that.


A lot of people think you can only make a good movie when you have nothing but love in your heart for its creation.

I sort of agree. When people don’t really care about the movie they’re making, you can usually tell.

Except in this case.

In her last book, Nora Ephron, the writer of When Harry Met Sally, had an essay about the time she thought she was going to come into a lot of money.

She was super-excited about this, because it meant she could quit writing the screenplay she was working on. In this case, it was When Harry Met Sally.

She was flat-out writing it for a check. And it came out just fine. More than fine, really.

Stuff you write just to make money? It can be art, too.


This is the magic of When Harry Met Sally – the thing people miss.

They talk about the dialogue. The words.

But you know what makes all those words, and no plot, really work, I think?

The movie never stops moving.

They’ve got a scene in a baseball game. A scene in a mall, with karaoke, back before that was a thing.

They’ve got people having dinner parties in different places.

And they’ve got married couples, seemingly unrelated to the plot, popping up at regular intervals.

Some sequences are thirty seconds long, and take place while two characters are crossing the street.

It’s brilliant.

And you, and I, should strive for that.

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