Why When Harry Met Sally is one of the greatest romantic comedies

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The 1989 classic, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, combines everything that makes a romantic comedy great. It tells the well-known story of boy meets girl, girl hates boy, girl and boy become friends, girl and boy fall in love and finally realise they belong together. However, When Harry Met Sally brings this familiar story to a whole new level. 

Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) first meet when they drive to New York together after graduating from college. Here it is established that the characters do not get along, but rather than forcing the characters to spend the whole movie together, the script allows them to go their separate ways. When they meet again five years later, they still do not get along and say goodbye forever for the second time. When they meet for the third time, another five years later, they become friends. There is no external conflict keeping them apart. The only thing standing in their way is themselves. In an interview, Norah Efron talks about when you write these external conflicts in at the start of a movie you must keep referring back to it throughout until you have this whole subplot that nobody really cares about. For example, in You've Got Mail, Meg Ryan's company is forcing Tom Hanks' bookstore out of business, causing obvious complications for their love story. That then poses the question, without this subplot what does the film spend all its time doing? And the answer to this is revealing character through comparison. We first meet the characters when they are leaving college, then again in their mid-20s and then finally in their early-30s. This means we get to compare their younger selves with their current selves. Then we see the comparison of how they both deal with heartbreak, Sally being mature and rational whilst Harry wallows in his depression. In fact, most of the film is the audience seeing Harry and Sally in situations where we can see their differences. However, the comparison isn't just between Harry and Sally, Efron gives them each a best friend who also fall in love with each other. Jess and Marie’s relationship acts as a foil for that of Harry and Sally. When they first meet, they immediately notice a good thing and before you know it they’re married. This directly contrasts with Harry and Sally who take years to figure out that they are meant for each other. However, all of this comparison is not arbitrary; it all orbits around the central idea of the film: Can men and women really be just friends?

In addition, the films wit and fast-paced dialogue make the script exceptional. Harry and Sally are both very intelligent people, and that shows in their conversation. It is not dumbed down, thus not insulting the audience’s own intelligence. The jokes are clever and witty, some of them running through the whole film, such as her not being able to order a sandwich without giving a ten-minute monologue. One of the most famous scenes in film history is from When Harry Met Sally; the “I’ll have she’s having” moment at the diner.  

The film is all the better because its protagonists are not shallow stereotypes, but actual human beings who have things to worry about besides the opposite sex. They live a life not centred around relationships, but also talk about other areas of their life. 
The lead actors are also absolutely perfect fits for their roles. Crystal and Ryan are totally in synch as the idiosyncratic couple who take years and years to realise they are meant for each other. Their quick dialogue keeps the audience on their toes, and does not for one second become dull. 

I couldn't not mention my, however predictable, favourite scene of the film: Harry's speech at the New Years Eve party. It warms my heart to the point where I always shed a little tear. It makes you want to believe in real love, which I suppose is the key ingredient to any romantic comedy. Yes, this scene is slightly cheesy, but as a hopeless romantic I believe it brings the film to the perfect close that we were all waiting for.

So, When Harry Met Sally is the perfect romantic comedy. And it probably always will be. 31 years after its release, people are still able to watch this film and receive it exactly as one would have in 1989.