Has the form of the romantic comedy ever been more perfectly expressed than in When Harry Met Sally (1989), rereleased in UK cinemas just in time for Christmas? Rob Reiner’s film might not have been the first rom-com, but taking their cue from It Happened One Night (1934) and the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s, the dream team of director Reiner, writer Nora Ephron and stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, fashioned a rom-com that to this day remains the gold standard for the genre.
Ephron, operating at the top of her game, gave us a razor-sharp screenplay that sings with wit, warmth and zing, crafting characters who manage to annoy each other while simultaneously making us fall in love with them. The four-way chemistry of Reiner, Ephron, Ryan and Crystal is so perfect that it’s impossible to imagine any other arrangement working half as well, but mention must also go to the supporting performances of Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as Harry and Sally’s long-time friends Marie and Jess, in roles that could easily have reverted to type.
In the capable hands of Fisher and Kirby, however, they resonate with their own internal depths and autonomous lives. Barry Sonnenfeld also deserves credit for his cinematography, which creates a living character out of New York that feels just as vital and iconic as the city of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). When Harry Met Sally is remembered for moments that are now part of the cultural zeitgeist – the ‘men and women can’t be friends’ conversation; the last-minute New Year’s Eve run; a really good sandwich – but it’s the narrative and characters that connect those iconic moments that give the film its depth; Harry and Sally’s decades-long loneliness is easy to miss amidst the zingy dialogue, but it rises and swells until it crashes at the film’s crescendo. Harry’s description of his wife telling him she never loved him is as emotionally devastating as it is hilarious in Crystal’s deadpan delivery, whereas Sally, in all her emotionally messy fussiness, is irresistibly charming in the hands of a never-better Ryan. Their journey through each other’s lives resonates so well that when Harry and Sally finally sleep together in a moment of emotional vulnerability, their subsequent falling out feels genuine and unhackneyed. Despite a thousand lesser imitators, When Harry Met Sally is just as fresh, witty and warm as it was in 1989.