Did You Know That a Lot of Critics Didn’t Like When Harry Met Sally?

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Twenty-five years after its release, When Harry Met Sally is now a bona-fide classic, but the reviews at the time of its release were a mixed bag. Here’s what the critics from 1989 had to say. We wonder if any of them changed their minds?

Who Loved It:

“Reiner has picked up the ball and given it his own unique spin. From Crystal and Ryan he has drawn starmaking performances. Crystal, surprisingly tender, isn’t afraid to show the bruises on his brash character: In one scene with Ryan in a department store, Crystal launches into an impromptu song; he’s regained some of his former spirit. Then his ex-wife appears, and the sight of her reduces him to emotional rubble. In a few seconds, Crystal’s face takes measure of what gets lost in a marriage. This is his most heartfelt and hilarious screen work.” —Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“Ryan is a summer’s Melanie Griffith — a honey-haired blonde who finally finds a showcase for her sheer exuberance. Neither naif nor vamp, she’s a woman from a pen of a woman, not some Cinderella of a Working Girl. She’s feisty and eccentric and more than holds her own against Crystal’s irascible, charming, George Burns nouveau. The excellent supporting cast includes Kirby and Carrie Fisher as the best friends of Harry and Sally who were, likewise, meant to be.” —Rita Kempley, Washington Post archives

Fortunately, as Sally’s experience grows, she blossoms and so does her faintly fey sense of humor, resulting in the movie’s funniest moment, that about-to-be-infamous faked-orgasm-in-a-deli sequence. (The line that tops it–the movie’s and maybe the year’s best–delivered by director Reiner’s mother, Estelle, was reportedly Crystal’s contribution. And, frankly, none of this seems enough to give this film its R rating, when the bloody carnage of the newest Bond film walks off with a PG-13.)” —Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“Ephron’s dialogue represents the way people would like to be able to talk. It’s witty and epigrammatic, and there are lots of lines to quote when you’re telling friends about the movie. The dialogue would defeat many actors, but Crystal and Ryan help it to work; their characters seem smart and quick enough to almost be this witty. It’s only occasionally that the humor is paid for at the expense of credibility - as in a hilarious but unconvincing scene where Sally sits in a crowded restaurant and demonstrates how to fake an orgasm. I laughed, but somehow I didn’t think Sally, or any woman, would really do that.” —Roger Ebert

When Harry Met Sally is the latest in Rob Reiner’s string of ‘nice’ movies. Conventional but irresistible, its plot and tone recall his 1985 sleeper The Sure Thing; it also suggests what Woody Allen comedies might be like if they had a more jock-ish bent.” —Mike Clark, USA Today archives

“You might, I suppose, object that Harry and Sally live in a vacuum; that they do no work, have no context, that their meetings in restaurants and public parks are heavy contrivances, and that the more the film tells us it represents real life the more plastic it appears. All this is beside the point. This film is your Christmas treat, and unless you die of a seasonal surfeit it will take you into the New Year laughing out loud.” —Hilary Mantel, The Spectator

“Crystal and Ryan are simply wonderful as best buddies in parts that call for precise comic timing, great range and depth.” —Frank Rutter, the Vancouver Sun archives

Who Didn’t Love It:

“A mite too pat, it never really probes or challenges Harry and Sally’s attitudes; but Nora Ephron’s extended, slightly sentimental, and none-too-original meeting cute scenario includes enough funny one-liners to hold the attention of all but the most jaded viewer.” —Time Out

“The level of insight and sensitivity of this comedy is such that it includes not only one joke about children starving in Ethiopia but another one based on John Kennedy’s being murdered. These, mind you, are jokes told to get laughs, not make a point about how inhuman and lacking in compassion people can be. Such hurtful lapses in taste would neutralize even a witty, intelligent film, and neither of those adjectives applies to this movie.” —Ralph Novak, People

“Still another dated factor. The film rests on the assumption that marriage is the state toward which everyone basically aspires, especially women. A man is the solution for a woman’s problems. Feminist hackles, prepare to rise.” —Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic archives

“It’s the most sociable of movies, with arguments aired and confidences spilled all over Manhattan. No one is caught working—it’s a movie devoted to personality. Much of the writing is bright, and the direction flows easily, but the friendship of Harry and Sally, depending as it does on the American convention of mutual kvetching — you scratch my hurt and I’ll scratch yours — can be a little wearisome.” —David Denby, New York

“To keep us busy while we wait for Harry and Sally to figure out that they’re in love, Reiner and Ephron simply string together bits of shtick. The debate, of course, is too shallow to engage us, but they might have tried providing a little plot. Screwball comedies used to give the audience at least the pleasure of appreciating the intricate machinery of farce, of following the ingenious contrivances that keep the lovers apart and then miraculously unite them … When Harry Met Sally positions itself comfortably in the middle of nowhere and casts knowing directions in all directions.” —Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Throughout the film, [Reiner] inserts mock-documentary scenes in which long-married couples face the camera and briefly tell their stories of love at first sight, or of love lost and later found. It is much too blunt a way of pointing to Harry and Sally’s future.” —Caryn James, the New York Times

Part of the problem is in the casting of Crystal. Not surprisingly he handles the comedy superbly, but he’s too cool and self-protective an actor to work as a romantic leading man; we want to see the inner life that hides behind the shtik. Ryan gets stronger as her character grows. She strains in the 1977 scenes and sometimes oversells her cuteness, but she blossoms into a comedienne of dazzling charm … A movie of wonderful parts, it doesn’t quite add up. In a season of rough-and-tumble entertainments, Reiner’s movie is a breath of half-fresh air.” —David Ansen, Newsweek archives

“For much of the movie, for example, we’re led to believe that Sally is an uptight sort of gal who likes everything in its proper place. But then there’s a scene in which, to prove to Harry that he could be fooled by a woman faking orgasm, she loudly and unself- consciously fakes one in the middle of a diner full of people. I can’t deny that Meg Ryan does a hilarious job with the scene, but after it’s over you’re left with no concept of the character. Sally, in other words, becomes as phony as her orgasm.” —Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel

When Harry Met Sally Divided Critics