Meant for each other

Finding wonderful truths wildly funny

Published: Mar 06 2022, 01:01:am

Friday, July 21, 1989

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY . . . Written by Nora Ephron. Music by Marc Shaiman. Co-produced and directed by Rob Reiner. Running time: 94 minutes. 14 Years Limited Admission with the B.C. Classifier's warning: occasional very coarse language and suggestive scenes.

    Truth to tell, though, Harry and Sally's first encounter is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
    It's 1977. Pert, pretty Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is on her way to New York, and journalism school. Because University of Chicago graduate lawyer Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) is her girlfriend's boyfriend, she accepts him as a travelling companion for the 18-hour-long drive.
    Aside from Casablanca, they have nothing in common. Because of that, they have nothing at stake, and so are able to tell one another the truth.
    ''No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive,'' Harry says, sagely. ''He always wants to have sex with her.''
    Welcome to the summer's first genuinely adult entertainment. Director Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally . . . is the best movie Woody Allen never made, a sharply focused Manhattan comedy that examines love and friendship, and the ways in which one grows from the other.
    No stranger to romance, Reiner first commented on the subject in his 1985 teen comedy The Sure Thing. It featured two equally mismatched college students on a similar cross-country journey.
    What distinguished the earlier picture, and marked Reiner as a director to watch, was his ability to find the truth in the comedy, and his humane treatment of his comic characters.  
    After Stand by Me (1986) and The Princess Bride (1987), there was no doubting Reiner's talent. A natural storyteller with a keen sense of his audience, he made each film a success on its own terms, an achievement of his personal vision rather than a product of market research.
    With When Harry Met Sally . . . he enters into an immediate conspiracy with filmgoers. The picture opens with an elderly married couple facing the camera.
    In apparent response to the question of how he and his wife met, the old gentleman describes their first encounter. ''Over 50 years later,'' he concludes, ''and we're still married.''
    Like a magician setting up an illusion, Reiner signals to us that Harry and Sally are meant for each other. Watch, he seems to say, and I'll prove it to you, making it both fun and real at the same time.  
    As scripted by Nora Ephron, their story unfolds over 11 Years. Five years separate their first and second meetings; five more, the second and third.
    The relationship begins to take hold in 1987. ''I didn't want to sleep with you, and you had to write it off as a character flaw,'' she reminds him during a stroll in the park.
    ''What's the statute of limitations on apologies?” he asks, surprising her with a newfound concern for her feelings.
    Under Reiner's unerring direction, comedian Crystal gives the performance of his life, showing us a character growing and maturing with the years. ''Obnoxious and contemptible’’ Harry eventually wins us over as he becomes a sensitive, vulnerable and committed human being.  
    Ryan, too, acts up a storm. Her perfect, preppy Sally manages a subtle shift from concern over outer control to the exercise of inner strength.
    When Harry Met Sally . . . is warm, wonderfully truthful and often wildly funny.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1989. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: You’re probably wondering why I never mention the picture’s famous  "I'll have what she's having" scene. I’d like to say that it had to do with my belief that daily newspaper film reviews had a duty to avoid spoilers. The mid-movie moment in which Meg Ryan’s Sally Albright character demonstrates her ability to fake an orgasm while having lunch in a crowded restaurant has assumed an honoured place in rom-com history. Even so, it was just basic courtesy to not spoil the surprise for a first-run audience.
    Actually, it was more an act of self-censorship. “Orgasm” was one of those words that a self-proclaimed “family newspaper” just didn’t print in 1989. We were all about (white male) propriety — which, incidentally, was what the humour in that movie scene turned upon — and so it was easier to avoid yet another newsroom confrontation than press the issue. The review was otherwise accurate, certainly favourable and one among many positive notices  the film received.
    Today, stories about When Harry Met Sally . . . are part of Hollywood folklore. I was delighted to learn that director Rob Reiner met his second wife, photographer Michele Singer, while filming the picture in 1988. They married the next year, and remain so today (his 75th birthday). Three weeks ago — on Valentine’s Day, no less — Britain’s inews website posted an interview with Reiner and actor Billy Crystal about the making of their memorable road romance.