For a while I’ve been thinking of doing posts where I discuss some of my all time favourite movies, in no particular order, and I decided to kick it off today with this flick, partly as a homage to the film’s writer, Nora Ephron, who passed away last night. Ephron was a great writer who pretty much set the template for the modern romantic comedy genre, and produced some wonderful movies. For my money, this is her best work.
Directed by Rob Reiner (another filmmaker with an impressive back catalogue) in 1989 the film follows the fortunes of Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan), charting their developing relationship over the space of roughly 12 years. The film starts with them driving from Chicago to New York after graduating university and both needing someone to share the drive with, and knowing each other because Harry is dating a friend of Sally’s.
Over the course of the journey their wildly different world views cause them to clash and leave on bad terms, especially Harry’s assertion that “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way“. Harry’s cynical, neurotic way of looking at things is completely at odds with the way Sally approaches life, being quite sweet and happy-go-lucky.
Five years later they bump into each other at the airport, where Sally is seeing off her boyfriend, who Harry knows. They share a flight together, but again leave on unfriendly terms, despite Harry attempting to suggest exceptions to his earlier rule.
The third meeting sees them bump into each other in New York, where both are coming out of serious relationships and trying to find their feet in the world of singledom. This time they do become friends and become very close, having late night phone conversations and both seeming to feel an attraction neither wishes to deal with.
They even set up each other with their best friends, Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby), only for their friends to fall for each other and wind up getting together. Hearing that her ex is getting married an upset Sally calls Harry, who goes to console her and they end up having sex. This puts a massive strain on the friendship and they grow apart, despite Harry’s repeated attempts to reconnect with Sally.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, with Sally bored at a party and Harry moping at home they realize they miss each other and Harry rushes to the party where he declares his love for her in a quite frankly brilliant speech.
Its hard to know where to start with why this film is so amazing, and what lifts it into a whole other league above most other rom-coms. And I speak as a man with a serious weakness for rom-coms.
First of all are the central performances, with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan both being sensational. Crystal is hilarious as the neurotic, fast-talking Harry, a man who reads the last page of a book first so he knows how it’ll end just in case he dies half way through reading it. Despite all these weird, cynical foibles he’s immensely likable and charming, and you fully understand why he has such success with women.
Ryan meanwhile is probably at her best here, as the ever-so-odd Sally, she’s wonderfully sweet and almost naive at the beginning of the film, and retains this sweetness in a way that feels utterly real. She’s funny, smart and sexy and it makes total sense that Harry is attracted to her first.
They share a wonderful chemistry together and are helped by some wonderful dialogue, as you can see in the clip above. I’ve seen the movie compared a lot with some of Woody Allen’s work and I can definitely see it in the fast-talking, witty way the characters interact, but there’s a real sense of warmth here that isn’t always present in Allen’s work. Its a testament to Ephron’s skill that she manages to create a script where both genders sound natural in their conversation and which highlights the differences and similarities between the sexes in such a simple, subtle manner.
There are wonderful lines throughout the film and some great scenes. The part of the film most people mention is the scene in the diner where Sally fakes an orgasm to illustrate that Harry has no way of being sure that his partners really enjoyed himself. It is a great, iconic scene, with some great work from Ryan and the fantastic capping line at the end.
But for me, while I like that scene, there are other parts that shine brighter. I love the way the characters talk to each other, especially a late night phone conversation between the two where they discuss Casablanca or the opening sequence where they drive to New York.
Also one of the things that I remember most fondly from this film is the subplot of the two friends, Marie and Jess. Kirby and Fisher are wonderful as best friends who fall for each other, and there’s something really sweet in their scenes together. Including a lovely, brief moment where having discussed the problems Harry and Sally face Marie says “Tell me I’ll never have to be out there again” to which she gets the reassuring reply, “You’ll never have to be out there again“, which serves as a kind of proposal in the film.
The best friend roles in rom-coms are usually one note comedy relief bits or someone for the hero/heroine to complain to, so its really nice here that these supporting parts feel believable and are more charming and engaging than the protagonists in some films.
Another lovely touch is including these lovely interviews of elderly couples who share the stories of how they got together. These little sections that break up the movie are superb. They’re wonderfully nuanced little sections that are heartwarmingly sweet and feel utterly believable, I’ve never been sure if they’re real couples or actors, that’s how good they are and I’m unwilling to dig any deeper. It also sets up the sweet ending.
The main characters have charmingly realistic flaws- Harry’s opinionated at times, and incredibly neurotic, but its all tempered by this warmth and wit, while Sally’s picky ordering style is a charming insight into a woman who knows how she wants things. They’re never overplayed and they feel like real people, in a way that I think raises this film above most other rom-coms.
It gets both sections of the genre absolutely spot on. Its a brilliantly realized love story that really hooks you in and also includes several laugh out loud moments, with some brilliantly witty dialogue.
Also the film is gorgeous. It’s here that I can really see why people compared it to Woody Allen’s movies because it makes New York look like a glorious, almost magical city, and is probably one of the reasons why the city is up there on my list of places I’d love to go to.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO