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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

by on 2010/12/28

I’ve known for a while this review was coming, much as tried to avoid it.  Months ahead, I’ve planned my dockets, and When Harry Met Sally just kept coming up as a possible review — for New Year’s Eve movies, for February romances, for April foolishness — and I’ve dismissed it at every step for its lack of geekiness.

What my planning didn’t forecast was how oppressive my geekier New Year’s Eve selections would feel.  Screened in rapid succession, Entrapment, Strange Days, and End of Days form a dark slope to dystopia.  I needed a palate-cleanser.

Sigh.  I suppose it was inevitable, as inevitable as the union of Harry and Sally.

No, I’m not giving much away there.  Does anyone see a Meg Ryan flick to get their tragedy fix?  Can the significance of the song “It Had To Be You” — played over and over again — be lost on the audience?

As in Titanic, most observers will have little doubt about the outcome.  The greater interest lies in how, not whether, the protagonists reach that conclusion.  And maybe, just maybe, the story, script, and acting will help us to care about why.

Political analyst Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) first meets journalist Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) in 1977, through a Chicago college carpool.  Their clashes and conversations evolve over the course of more than a decade.  They interact, part ways, live their yuppie lives, and bump into each other again from time to time.

This odd couple spars over gender issues, politics, social mores and, well, more.  We see disastrous dates, watch them evolve, and meet their friends, brilliantly played by Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher and the late, great Bruno Kirby.

As in most such films, there are moments of sheer embarrassment, of new couples speaking of things — and in ways — that only new couples do.  Realistic or not, it’s an irritant which quickly loses its charm.  Fortunately these moments never overwhelm the movie overall, and I was taken aback to realize the leads are genuinely entertaining.

Though Crystal seems perpetually at the edge of his composure, he’s no less fun for the glimmer of laughter in his eyes.  He’s like an entire run of Seinfeld made corporeal but, while his unfiltered honesty can be as hilarious as accurate, his supposed “dark side” is more like the unlit angle on a teddy bear.  So sensitive is this proto-metro man of the Nineties, he threatens to unseat Ryan as the softy of the piece.

For her part, she does at least as well.  An actress once condemned for her cuteness, she now strikes me as overridingly retro, a quick visual metric of the current time and place.

Both put in more effort than a simple reading of the lines.  Their quizzical looks, vague recognitions, and searches for significance add considerable subtext to their words . . . angst, neurosis, and telegraphed hostilities-to-come.  Without them saying a thing, we understand they’re lying less to each other than to themselves.  Their greatest common trait is an evolution toward discovering how little they understand.

The production depicts their journey with a surprising air of weariness.  Some of the photography, especially during the autumn scenes, are ostensibly colourful, but also melancholy.  This bittersweet quality is supported by a score largely comprised of playful-yet-low-key jazz standards, rendered by Louis Armstrong, Harry Connick Jr, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Marc Shaiman, and Frank Sinatra.

My greatest qualm with the movie is the series of “true couple vignettes” intercutting the jumps in time.  Undeniably charming in my initial viewing, now they feel like distractions.  To suspect the participants are actors makes their delivery feel stagey, their “cuteness” grating, and their stories borderline disingenuous.

Quibbles aside, I’ll reluctantly admit I enjoyed When Harry Met Sally.  While it’s too slick to compete with Before Sunset, it’s more balanced and mature than pap like The Sweetest Thing.  Mining forgotten familiarities, it’s as traumatic as it is enticing.  The truth is, it’s not so much detestable as uncomfortably close to home.

* * * *

Rated R for adult situations and language

96 minutes

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