When Harry Met Sally

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Series: When Harry Met Sally

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Can men and women ever just be friends? That’s the question posted by When Harry Met Sally, the romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, who would go on to direct Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. This is the quintessential romantic comedy that provided groundbreaking perspective on relationships through the questionable friendship turned love affair between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Since being released in 1989, When Harry Met Sally has become the basis for what almost every romantic comedy aspires to be. Many of the cliches that we’ve come to expect from romantic comedies are a result of When Harry Met Sally, but no matter how good even the best romantic comedies have been in the years since its release, they can’t quite reach the perfection offered by this romance that spans over a decade and has stood the test of time for over 30 years.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan play Harry Burns and Sally Albright, two acquaintances who have just graduated from the University of Chicago and are each heading off to begin their adult lives in New York City. During their drive across the country, they share their own perspectives on relationships, often fundamentally disagreeing. The biggest contention between them is Harry’s idea that men and women can never be friends because sex gets in the way. Sally disagrees and seemingly proves his point when Harry says she’s empirically attractive, and she thinks he’s making a pass at her, which is all the more worrisome since Harry is dating his friend Amanda. By the end of the drive, the two part ways on not so friendly terms.

The conversations between Harry and Sally that kick off the movie set the stage for what’s to come throughout the rest of the story. As the two run into each other by happenstance several times over the next decade, their relationship evolves from being mere acquaintances to best friends, seemingly disproving Harry’s theory on men and women being friends. But as the movie continues, the interaction between them inches closer to what we all know is coming. It seems silly to describe all this because it seems so formulaic by today’s standards, but When Harry Met Sally is the original formula. The tight, clever script full of witty dialogue and memorable moments, including the famous deli orgasm, makes Harry and Sally such rich characters where every single scene adds to the evolution of both their individual characters and their dynamic, in both obvious and subtle ways.

Even the supporting characters played by Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher also serve to enhance the story in the conversations they have with Harry and Sally, defining the different perspectives men and women have about relationships and the opposite sex. The side-romance between Harry and Sally’s friends is a well-crafted element of the story that would also inform romantic comedies in the years to come.

Beyond the story at the center of When Harry Met Sally, this movie serves as an informative and practical guide to relationships in general. So many concepts discussed by Harry and Sally in this movie have become reference points for real life romance, even if some of them are generalizations that have become a little outdated. Nora Ephron’s script takes a grounded, authentic approach to relationships in a way that changed the romance genre forever. While today’s audiences might see the predictable ending as overly sentimental and cheesy, everything preceding makes it feel rightfully earned. This is the definitive romantic comedy, and it never fails to lift my spirits.

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