FILMS

Sex and friendship

A new movie plays a love affair for laughs

Brian D. Johnson July 24 1989
FILMS

Sex and friendship

A new movie plays a love affair for laughs

Brian D. Johnson July 24 1989

Sex and friendship

FILMS

A new movie plays a love affair for laughs

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY . . .

Directed by Rob Reiner

A good, healthy laugh can be hard to find at the movies. This summer’s hits are riddled with jokes, but the humor often involves either acts of extreme cruelty or a preposterous premise. In Batman, the Joker practises homicidal slapstick with acid and poison gas; in Lethal Weapon 2, a cop kills criminals with a semi-automatic staple gun. For a family audience, Ghostbusters

II provides more nontoxic fun with phantoms, while Honey, I Shrunk the Kids offers an amusing adventure with characters small enough to drown in a bowl of Cheerios. But it has been some time since a smart, funny, believable, adult comedy has come along—a movie that makes laughter roll with enough momentum to drown out some of the jokes. When Harry Met Sally... is that kind of movie.

A romantic comedy about the conflict of interest between sex and friendship, it is the kind of movie that director Woody Allen used to make. From the jazz piano that percolates through the soundtrack to the fondly observed Manhattan setting, director Rob Reiner creates a style that evokes vintage Allen. Its subject—romance entered by the back door of friendship—is reminiscent of Allen’s 1977 hit, Annie Hall. The movie lacks his neurotic persona and his Punch-and-Judy existentialism. But they are not missed. Harry Met Sally

proves that it is possible to make an urbane, witty comedy of Manhattan manners without Woody Allen.

Spanning a period of 11 years, the story focuses on a slow-fuse relationship between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan). They meet in 1977, when they share a car ride from Chicago to New York City. Harry wastes no time explaining his code of sexual ethics: “No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive.” He finds her sexy; she finds him obnoxious. He makes a pass at her; she briskly

rejects him. Five years later, they meet by chance to discover each is involved in a relationship. More years pass, and by the next chance encounter, Harry and Sally are both separated, single and vulnerable.

But they become friends instead of lovers. They talk on the telephone at bedtime. They cry on each others’ shoulders. They watch Casablanca and agree that it has the best last line in movie history: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Harry is delighted by the novelty of having a female friend—“I never had a relationship with a woman I didn’t have sex with.” And they sublimate their attraction to each other, until one night it takes them unawares. That poses a dilemma, because Harry is still convinced that sex and friendship are mutually exclusive.

With satisfying simplicity, the narrative concentrates on a single relationship. Crystal portrays Harry with a tightly contained comic

energy. As Sally, Ryan complements him with finesse and charm. And although her role is not as strongly written as his, she performs the movie’s most hilarious scene. Billy is arguing with Sally that women cannot convincingly fake orgasms—and, to prove her point, in the middle of a crowded restaurant, she simulates a loud, long and spectacular climax. A woman at another table turns to the waitress and says, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Like that episode, many of the movie’s most amusing scenes take place in restaurants, or involve food. Sally has a habit of dissecting menus in front of waiters and ordering almost everything “on the side.” And when Harry and Sally try to set each other up with their best friends—Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher)—discussion turns to food. “Pesto,” declares Jess, “is the quiche of the ’80s.” But then the screenwriter is a former food critic, New York journalist-novelist Nora Ephron {Heartburn). Her script offers a superficial but well-seasoned parody of contemporary moral etiquette.

Ephron partly based her script on Reiner’s own experiences. After playing Meathead in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, he has since shown impressive virtuosity as a director, with credits ranging from This Is Spinal Tap (1984), a brilliant rock ’n’ roll satire, to Stand by Me{1986), a touching coming-of-age story. With his latest movie, he has conquered another idiom. He may owe much of his style to Woody Allen. But in a season of action spectacles, Harry Met Sally can make the quite original claim of being the funniest comedy of the summer.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON