I’ve never understood the stigma that a romantic comedy is inherently slight. I’ll openly admit that studios more interested in making money than telling great stories have hijacked the genre slightly, but in many ways I believe that some of the best expressions of how men and women interact have come from those select romantic comedies that dare to hold a mirror up to how we act around the opposite sex.
Up towards the top of the stack for me is Rob Reiner’s 1989 pop culture classic, WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…
Steve Honeywell from 1001 Plus had never seen the film before, so he volunteered to watch it with fresh (and very knowledgeable eyes) and talk to me about how well it holds up 23 years later.
Ryan McNeil: So how was it that you never caught up with this film before now?
Steve Honeywell: I’m not sure why I hadn’t watched it. I think initially, before I really opened myself up to watching a variety of genres, it was more or less that the genre of romantic comedies didn’t appeal to me. In fact, they still don’t, in general. When I started on the 1001 list, I knew I’d have to watch it eventually, and I bought a copy (on VHS, no less) from a sale at my local library knowing I’d have to watch it. And there it sat for a good two years. I don’t really have a reason other than other films always seemed more pressing. I knew I’d get to it eventually.
RM: Well there we go – my tapping you to take part in this series just gave you the excuse to finally dust it off and pull it down off the shelf. Did you have any preconceptions or expectations when you sat down to watch it?
SH: When I pressed play, a part of me thought, “Well, let’s get this over.” Another part of me thought, “I hope it lives up to its reputation.”
RM: Geez man, you make it sound like I was making you watch Andy Warhol’s SLEEP. How did you make out?
SH: It’s really good! I admit that I’m kicking myself for not watching it earlier. In my defense, though, the rom-com genre does tend to be feeble. There are plenty more bad ones than there are good ones, so I’m always wary.
We’re given real characters here instead of caricatures. They have real hopes, real motivations. They’re realistic. Sally’s inability to order off the menu in a restaurant reminds me very much of my wife, who hasn’t ever seen an entree she can’t mutate. Harry’s observations are perhaps a little too clever, but are the sort of observations I see people make. My friends say stuff like that. So do I now and then. The fact that these are real people going through real issues in what look like real lives is a big plus, because I don’t ever care about caricatures. I do care about characters I can understand.
It’s also Meg Ryan before she was typecast as the cute girl aching for a guy, and it’s Billy Crystal at his most likable and fun, and those things don’t hurt.
RM: That’s the thing, right? Sometimes we like to paint a character as being too smart for their own good, but when we step back and realize that we’ve met such people it becomes more tangible.
Perhaps the film’s quality speaks volumes about its writing, and that where rom-coms are concerned, the writers should be looked at as the real stars? More than the actors or perhaps even the directors!
SH: Yes–Nora Ephron should get a lot of the credit here. Ryan and Crystal (and to a lesser extent Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby) are given fantastic material. Few actors can make wretched material work, so having that as a base really helps. The problem with rom-coms is that they so often fall back on formula. In it’s own way, When Harry Met Sally is formulaic. We’re pretty sure that at the end they’ll be together. But in most rom-coms, we know this. When Sandra Bullock bumps into a guy and hates him at first sight, is there any mystery about the third act? Or how we’ll get there? That’s the issue for me–but the same can be said of a lot of genres. Generally, you know in the first 15 minutes how most sports movies will end, too. Think there’ll be a big game at the end? Think the underdogs will win?
RM: Did you know coming in that this was where the term “High maintenance/low maintenance” came from?
SH: No. My wife is remarkably low maintenance, aside from her penchant for twisting orders at restaurants (you should hear the woman order pancakes. It’s epic). She’s often ready to go before I am, and I am so appreciative of that. Everyone knows that person who always has to have his or her own way in everything or everything is ruined! RUINED! So, even though I didn’t know the specifics of this film, those terms have been a part of my vocabulary pretty much forever.
RM: I think we all know people who fit into one category or the other. But that’s crazy isn’t it? A writer comes up with one little idea – that’s only ever mentioned once in the film – and it becomes part of the wider vocabulary, and not even in a wry “You complete me” sort of way.
Crystal and Ryan have an amazing chemistry, don’t they? It’s almost strange to see, because on a casting sheet, you might not think of them as clicking as well as they do.
SH: The chemistry works, and part of that is attributable to the script. We wouldn’t buy them as a couple right away. We need to see them as friends who genuinely enjoy each other’s company before we accept them as a romantic pairing. Again, a smart move by Nora Ephron. The chemistry between them works, but with this set-up, the chemistry between any two likable people would work. We’re not told that they like each other, we’re shown it over and over, and so we believe it.
RM: Part of me wonders if a modern studio would be able to resist casting prettier people in the roles and not considering their chemistry for even a moment.
Well it certainly sounds like you enjoyed this a great deal – which I’m always happy to hear. Despite my “watch it again” mantra, I don’t want things to become a chore. It couldn’t have been totally perfect – was there anything in particular that you didn’t like about it?
SH: This will sound crazy, but the biggest problem I had is that “the scene” isn’t as funny as I thought it would be. It might well be that I’ve seen that moment before because it’s considered so classic, or that it’s been built up so much for me that I expected the world of it, but I got a much bigger laugh from “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikash, but I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie.”
Other than that, I could have wished for another 15 minutes or so. Or more of the old couples. I loved them.
RM: It’s strange, because usually I preach the gospel of ‘context’, but the deli scene has always spoken for itself. So I can see what you’re saying; this moment that’s been built up as one of the funniest in film history plays like any other card in the deck.
If anything, Harry gets an even better moment before Meg gets into the theatrics (“What. are. you. saying? Women. fake. orgasms?). I was of the same opinion when I saw it, and like you I was more amused by a lot of the throw-a-way lines (“…but Baby Fish Mouth is sweeping the nation”)
SH: The blind date scene is far too pat. The moment that Marie quotes an article Jess wrote, we know where this is going, and the film thankfully doesn’t draw it out too much, but the end of that scene is straight out of a sit-com. Both agree with their friends that they’ll take it slow, and then they leave together and suddenly they’re moving in together. All it’s missing is the “doodle-y doodle-y doo!” music and a “boing-g-g-g!” sound effect.
SH: That is the central question, isn’t it? It’s a good question, too. In some respects, Harry is right–there frequently is a sexual tension between men and women.
RM: What makes it work for me is the ever-changing relationship between Harry and Sally. Something we seldom see in movie and television shows is the way that we can know of somebody but not feel all that close to them…however, if we run into them later when we’re both at a different place in our lives, we can find ourselves becoming friends with someone who was once just an acquaintance.