When Harry Met Sally… adheres to the classic rom-com spirituality, wherein nothing could ever happen by chance. Indeed, the film intersperses interviews with elderly couples, who gleefully recount the serendipity that kept them apart until they were meant to be together. Ironically, the story is built around two characters who spend most of the movie pushing back against the idea they are soulmates. This makes When Harry Met Sally… a kind of referendum on the romantic notion of fate: Either Harry and Sally will become one of the old couples in the cutaways, or they’ll be a walking, talking repudiation of them. There’s nothing in between.
The story begins in 1977, when they meet as strangers. Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) have just graduated from the University of Chicago, and they share a car ride to disparate jobs in New York City. Along this epic road trip, the two spark a chemistry that’s both instant and unstable. They agree to disagree on some big issues. (Example: Whether Ilsa should’ve ended up with Rick Blaine or Victor Lazlo in Casablanca.) Harry drops the ultimate bomb when he declares men and women are incapable of being platonic friends. This awkwardly stifles their budding friendship, and they quietly part ways somewhere in Manhattan.
With over two acts of movie to go, you know fate has to put Harry and Sally together again. They bump into each other a few times around the city, always when both are settled into other relationships. Eventually, they enter into respective marriages, and Harry and Sally seem destined to be distant acquaintances.
Years pass. Things get spicy when the duo meets cute in a bookstore. After some hemming and hawing, it becomes apparent that Harry and Sally are now divorced. They strike up a platonic relationship, with Harry putting his theory of male-female interaction to a rigorous test.
Things seem to go well at first. Harry and Sally develop a deep friendship, eventually becoming each other’s trusted confidante. They share dating horror stories, give each other well-intentioned advice, and even attempt to set their respective besties (Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher) with each other. Based on this stretch of the movie, it would seem that Harry’s theory couldn’t be more wrong.
Or could it? Over time, Harry and Sally’s friendship seems to deepen into something richer and rarer. They talk on the phone at bedtime, often dozing to the sound of each other’s voices. Harry confesses the liberation he feels in being able to tell Sally anything, and getting “the woman’s perspective.” They attain a rare symbiosis, marked by genuine empathy and honest affection. Although neither will admit to it, it certainly seems like Harry and Sally are soulmates.
Of course, a good screenwriter will never allow it to be that easy. In this case, Harry and Sally are neurotic, over-analytical beings, and they often can’t get out of their own way. If fate spends the movie trying to velcro the two together, then Harry and Sally actively work to tear themselves away.
I don’t want to reveal much more of the plot. Suffice to say, the couple rides a rollercoaster of emotions. After a while, it becomes difficult to believe any relationship borne out of so much push and pull–so much fence-straddling–could ever amount to anything. That makes it just like every other rom-com: If you want to have any fun with When Harry Met Sally…, you’re gonna have to put the rational centers of your brain into idle mode.
On that front, the film’s best distraction is marveling at the chemistry between Crystal and Ryan. Their relaxed, confident interplay elevates the movie from a talky, weightless throwaway into a date movie for the ages. In its best moments, this is an unusual movie that feels both written and real, all at once. Crystal may be the comedian, but she’s every bit as funny. In fact, it’s Ryan’s fake orgasm in Katz’s Deli that has become the film’s enduringly iconic scene. (And it’s Rob Reiner’s mom who supplies that joke with its equally famous punchline.)
So, do Harry and Sally escape the heavy hand of destiny? Or are they meant to be another couple who tried to swim against the current, only to have it sweep them into each other’s arms? Naturally, I’m not going to tell you, but I will put it this way: If you’ve seen enough rom-coms, you already know what the answer is.
96 min. R. On demand.