Movie Review: When Harry Met Sally (or, “Yes, Baby Fish Mouth, This Is a Holiday Film”)

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Surprised to find this 1989 Rob Reiner/Nora Ephron classic on the holiday movie lists? Well, why not? When Harry Met Sally is snappily written, gracefully directed, and lusciously filmed, with a rich dollop of holiday atmosphere–on the side, to quote Sally Albright. Two Christmas and New Year’s seasons, a year apart, bookend the last hour of the film, during which likable would-be antagonists find the beginnings of a beautiful friendship, then endure miserable loneliness. Will they face the holidays alone, or find a happy ending?

With its iconic New York setting, the film sets the perfect mood for a holiday filled with gifts, miraculous surprises, and above all, love, the most miraculous surprise of all. This satisfying and uplifting urban fairy tale, starring two of the most charming romantic leads ever, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, is for viewers who don’t want a spoon-feeding of the usual holiday pablum.

Harry and Sally are avowedly not friends. He is cynical and wryly irreverent, while she is preternaturally sunny:

“When I get a new book,” Harry says, “I read the last page first. That way, if I die before I finish, I know how it comes out. That, my friend, is a dark side.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean you’re deep or anything,” Sally retorts. “I mean, yes, I am basically a happy person. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“Of course you don’t. You’re too busy being happy.”

But when his wife divorces him and her long-term lover refuses to get married, Harry and Sally bond over their misfortunes, watch Casablanca together over the phone, and begin to find in each other a deeper friendship than any they’ve known with a person of the opposite gender. They become the sort of unlikely friends that give you faith in humanity’s ability to get along.

Christmas comes late in the film–immediately after Meg Ryan’s famous Katz’s Delicatessen scene, which offers a “climax” in its own right. You don’t get a better New York setting than this: a snowy Central Park replete with skaters, kids on sleds, a horse and carriage; lights aglow through a wintry haze; Rockefeller Center; director Reiner’s mother drily delivers her cameo line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Harry stands by as Sally pays for a Christmas tree. The two struggle over snowy sidewalks with the fir, a perfect portrait of budding camaraderie.

At a sparkling, penthouse New Year’s party, Harry and Sally share a dance and agree to be together the following year, if neither of them falls in love before then–drawing an important line between love and friendship. Am I with you because I have nothing better to do? Or do I choose you? A gorgeous silence envelops them as they find themselves dancing to Harry Connick Jr.’s “I Could Write a Book”: Then the world discovers as my book ends/How to make two lovers of friends.

But fast-forward a year and the holiday season shows its uglier mug. Harry and Sally’s “friendly” standoff has been complicated by sex.

“Boy, the holidays are rough,” Harry says, trying to reconcile during an uncomfortable wedding celebration.

“A lot of suicides,” Sally deadpans.

Sally barely wrestles this year’s tree home all by herself. Harry begins New Year’s Eve with a package of Mallomars and no one but Dick Clark for company. Sally wants him to make a choice. “I am not your consolation prize,” are her actual words. Ryan somehow exudes both vulnerability and a shoulders-thrown-back sureness as she delivers the line. And true to the spirit of the season, Harry does the miraculous thing.

Reiner layers loveliness upon sweetness in the film’s final montage, depicting moments in the course of the “beautiful friendship” over an instrumental reprise of “I Could Write a Book.” Christmas lights flash by in the darkness as Harry races to Sally’s side; colored balloons drop all around a stunning and miserable Sally as the clock begins to count down.

I don’t think you have to be a woman to think of the ending of When Harry Met Sally as an exhilarating holiday miracle. Not only does Harry do the right thing, but he delivers a superb romantic monologue to prove he really means it. “I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes, and I love that you’re the last person I want to talk to when I go to sleep at night… I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

When Harry Met Sally is every bit as fresh and sharply witty today as it was on the day of its release, over twenty years ago, yet it carries a warm whiff of nostalgia–a great holiday departure. Makes you want the holidays to start as soon as possible!


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