In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
A good barometer for whether or not a comedy makes it onto this list is the volume at which the word “NEVER” is shouted in the sentence, “You’ve NEVER seen that?” The higher the volume, the more likely it makes the list. By this point, it’s harder to tell - not because the volume is lower after a few months, but because the damage done to my ears prior to watching Ghostbusters and Blazing Saddles makes it more difficult to discern.
In any case, When Harry Met Sally made the list easily.
The bad news is that, like Beetlejuice, When Harry Met Sally is a little lighter on the comedy than I’m used to for these columns. The good news is that what little there is is ripe for the 20-years-later-some-hipster-armchair-critic-comes-along-and-dissects-it picking.
When Harry Met Sally is decidedly an “adult” romantic comedy - unlike, say, Sleepless in Seattle, there are no child sidekicks, the dialogue is more naturalistic and less coy, and there’s less pressure in a non-family-friendly film to tie up all the loose ends in a way that satisfies children who don’t understand what relationships are or how they work. As a side note, this is the real tragedy of modern romantic comedies (well, one of the real tragedies): in an effort to please an entire PG audience, the romantic comedy has doomed itself to telling stories, about adults, for children. Which, if one felt like making bold claims about the suggestive power romantic comedies wield over the general developmentally-arrested public, could make for a persuasive and silly argument.
Anyway, as far as the film’s content may stray from its Tom-Hanksian counterparts, it’s still an archetypical 80s romantic comedy. The romantic leads are so perfectly, cloyingly, panderingly opposite that their eventual union is literally never in question, even if you haven’t read the title of the film. Which, of course, isn’t the point exactly, but on the other side of the ‘90s, seeing how close this film adheres to the formula is interesting. The film isn’t “This is a genre-defying romantic comedy,” but rather, “Let’s make a boy-gets-girl with swearing.” Or, if you prefer, “Let’s make Annie Hall for people who didn’t get Annie Hall.”
So, fine. On a plot level, it’s just like every other movie made that year. What about the jokes?
Well, Rob Reiner obviously knows what he’s doing, and so does Billy Crystal. Crystal looks at home in what was probably an unexpected role for him at the time, and he plays it with a laid-back confidence that’s well-suited to his character. Also, extra points for his hairstyle in the first scene, the only time I’ve ever seen him without his receding Jew-fro. Meg Ryan, on the other hand, looks a little unsure, and her double takes and exasperation are pretty broad next to Crystal’s jaded deadpan. It made me wish they had cast a legit comedian to play Sally opposite Crystal. Still, the pacing and dialogue are snappy enough, and what is meant to be funny generally is.
It rubs me the wrong way, though, when I sense someone’s stand-up material (or material written for a stand-up) being copied and pasted into scenes to replace actual dialogue-based jokes, and I felt that on many occasions. It makes the story feel like an elaborate device for re-gifting bits that did really well at Caroline’s last year. It’s the same thing that made the short-lived Lucky Louie so frustrating to watch – the sets, the characters, the plots, all a justification for a guy to tell the jokes he tells better by himself. There are exceptions, of course – Seinfeld succeeded because Jerry’s material is comedy of the normal (not to mention the cast), and Woody Allen gets a
pass because his films are about a world full of characters who wear their monologues on their sleeves. But putting one acerbic loudmouth into a world full of normal unfunnies makes you just wait for a character to say, “Okay, man, give it a rest. I’ll come to your stupid open mic.”
When Harry Met Sally is a movie that still does what it set out to do in 1989: it’s safe, predictable, sweet and romantic, none of which are adjectives normally associated with good comedy. It’s aged a bit, especially in regard to genre, but it’s a solid piece of storytelling. In the end I feel about the movie the same way I feel about those cute faux-documentary interstitials Reiner plugs into the act breaks, where an old couple tells a funny story about how they met. They’re old and careful and wistful, sure, but you laugh – partly because they’re old and you know you’re supposed to, but partly because there’s something real beneath that musty anecdote, even there’s no way it would happen like that in real life.