Credit: Columbia
by Molly Adams Featured Film Kicking the Canon

When Harry Met Sally… | Rob Reiner

March 5, 2021

There are certain iconic questions in cinema history that have endured long after the credits roll. Who shot first, Han or Greedo? Did the spinning top ever fall at the end of Inception? In 1989, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron introduced their own query to the canon of great movie debates with the romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. While other such examples might be based in the minutia of a scene or in different cuts of a film or in some expansive philosophical view, Ephron cuts to the quick of human relationship dynamics with a simple question — can men and women ever just be friends? From a present vantage, it’s easier than ever to see the flaws of the question, which fails to account for anything other than heterosexual romance, but even such flaws add dimensionality to the debate. Ask a room full of people this question, and you’ll get a room full of different answers (and probably start a few spirited arguments).

Ephron and Reiner’s question has become so iconic that, for a while, it became the core inquiry of romantic comedy. Sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother deploy it as their central tension, maintaining will-they-won’t-they dramatics for a decade, while the film itself revolutionized the cliché of the love interest who, wouldn’t you know it, was right under their nose the whole time. But this conceit wasn’t the only element that Ephron and Reiner established precedent for — endless imitators even borrowed the film’s NYC trappings. While New York always loomed over the genre in films like Annie Hall, Ephron’s glamorized, West Village-inspired imagining of the city became so standard that it seemed impossible to fall in love anywhere else — it also lent credibility to the idea that roughly half of the population were plucky journalists. WHMS set the stage for the genre’s next evolution, what with screwball comedies seemingly left behind in favor of more dialogue- and character-driven narratives, but few of the subsequent riffs ever got the formula right in the way that Ephron and Reiner did. As ambitious, quirky career gals and their cynical male counterparts became pro forma romantic leads, and this gorgeous, imaginary version of New York became overran with attractive white people with effortlessly impressive jobs, it became evident that it’s far easier to borrow aesthetics and archetypes than it is to meaningfully engage such ideas with the depth that Ephron achieves.

Despite its considerable legacy, the ubiquity of WHMS is something of a double-edged sword. Idiosyncrasies like Sally’s long-winded restaurant orders, Harry’s monologues, or the infamous “I’ll have what she’s having” punchline overshadow the film’s subtler moments in our cultural memory, and in the hands of less expert filmmakers, confuse what makes the film such a genre touchstone. Sure, these lovable moments might be what pop culture clings to, but the vitality of WHMS is not found in such specifics. Instead, what sets the film apart are the ways in which it grapples with that big question — can these two people just be friends, or will sex always, inevitably, get in the way? Indeed, the scene that perhaps best demonstrates the subtlety of the relationship-building here comes in one of the film’s smaller moments, one that seems to often be forgotten — Harry and Sally’s first kiss. A hug turns into a peck on the lips, which in turn grows into a deeper kiss; the whole scene feels so organic, so obvious that it might just easily pass by until seconds later when its passion escalates. Instead of offering up some ostentatious, “big kiss” finale that signals a bland happily-ever-after, Ephron opts for something more complicated and honest. There’s a brilliant subtlety to this sequence, one that is echoed in the relationship’s pointed evolution across its runtime, and one that pale imitations so often get wrong. For Harry and Sally, the unique nuances of their relationship aren’t mere narrative flavor, but the result of an exacting look at mechanisms of how people fall in love. Thanks to her commitment to such precise characterization, Ephron’s emotional crescendo is earned in a way that most modern rom-coms fail to replicate because they aren’t suitably dedicated to crafting such authenticity. With When Harry Met Sally…, Ephron and Reiner delivered a minor narrative miracle that other filmmakers have been trying to reproduce ever since — a perfect balance of universal themes and dilemmas capable of drawing viewers in and the wonderful specificity that makes each love story unique.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.