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When Harry Met Sally (1989)


Wow. Suddenly the romantic comedy of the 1980s got to be thirty years old. Which means the wife and I were…let’s go with mid to late fifties when it came out. And we loved it. Not a story, in all honesty, of old or even middle age, we felt it was our story of how you get there: a couple, an independent soul and a bit of an arse, taking forever to get together. Being American, and very New Yorkish, it’s also stuffed with neuroses and self-commentary, but avoiding the egotistic solipsisms of Woody Allen (young Steve will be along soon to explain why Allen isn’t annoying…). So, it’s romantic, it’s charming, it’s all about having what she had: When Harry Met Sally.

So this is the journey of many couples to a happy, married old age. Interviews intersperse the action (actors perform comedied versions of real interviews writer Nora Ephron conducted) and outline what life does to people. It beats them up, ties them together, gives them every emotion and sometimes children to boot. And that’s lovely: the message to the oldsters is in the recognition of life’s long battle, the laughs, tears and…certainly for me and old Mrs Jack…the affections. But…hmmm…that felt like a thing for older generations in 1989. The trouble then was getting together at all…

So, the plot. It’s 1977 and Harry and Sally are thrown together on a car trip: fresh graduates, they share the drive to New York and The Future. They lay out the theme for the story: Harry feels men and women can’t just be friends because, you know, sex; Sally feels the opposite, because, you know, she’s a woman in a woman’s script and splendidly gets to play what’s real. Harry (Billy Crystal as Thin, Young Billy) tells Sally she’s terrifically attractive (and so say a lot of old Jack’s 1989 acquaintances. Men and women. Not an argument. But, for the sake of one, Meg Ryan steals the movie with comic deftness and a vulnerable pride, not the cute thing going on with her nose). The couple part on terse terms and five years pass…

Then they bump into each other on a flight, mid relationships, and bicker again with lovely bits of comedy business I won’t spoil. Cos, if you haven’t seen this, you are properly out of synch with good sense and need the laughs – plot, performance, pith and wit grace every scene. Including the famous one. And the build through a familiar set of beats is warmly done.

Six more years and, relationship plans devastated, they meet again in a bookshop and the debate goes. Only this time…they dabble in friendship. The chorus step up as they double date with their friends (Bruno Kirby is all louche hair, nerves and a dash of smug; Carrie Fisher is nasally modern) and said friends abandon them for a robust relationship of their own. Of course, out here in the real world, there’s the awful truth that they both – like Ephron – left far too soon for their awfully big adventure…

And on the story goes through the push-me pull-you of genuine friendship, admitted attraction, emotional cowardice and dangling on the hook of want, need and post-coital confusion. Cos, yes, she has what she’s having (look, this is a reference to the famous Fake Orgasm Scene and is your responsibility to understand), and, both rightly and wrongly…


You will know the film’s ending after the next sentence.

Oh yeah.

Oh yeah.

Just down there, baby…

(This is also a reference to the Fake Orgasm Scene, so get the hint, will you?

…the film ends on the gentler side of the leads’ debate. With their own interview. Which remains completely lovely.

Because if there’s one thing old Jack loves about this film, it’s those moments of truth exposed in the interviews. Mismatched couples, those disapproved of by parents, those who fought from wedding to today, are bound up by truth and love. And that’s the best bit about the journey from youth to middle-age…and on to the sadness of me, sat alone in this room with a laptop and memories. Love.

Of course, the thing has dated: Rob Reiner‘s frank direction is sitcom-soft. The clothes and the smarts seem from a more stylish, far less self-pitying time. Many of the Americans are thin. They are also straight, white and middle class. Something is missing we didn’t notice at the time: the experience of the rest of planet Earth. But, it’s lovely to remember, for ninety brief, glorious minutes, that it’s ok to tell yourself a story about you, and to sparkle it up with insight and sprightly gags. Anything else is bad marketing.

Have what she’s having.

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