Can a man and woman really be just friends? Or does the sex thing inevitably get in the way? That’s the big question posed by When Harry Met Sally…, a story stretched out over a dozen years about two people who come in and out of each other’s lives until they finally meet once again at a time when they’re exactly what the other needs. They enjoy what begins as a natural and fulfilling friendship until indeed, the sex thing gets in the way. And that’s when things start to get really interesting…and a lot more difficult than either one ever bargained for.
It all begins when Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) are departing from college and Harry catches a ride with Sally. During their initial encounter, he hits her with a kind of manifesto he has concocted about relationships, in which men and women can’t be friends because inevitably, they’ll get romantically attracted to each other. Five years later, Harry and Sally meet once again by chance on a plane, and Harry bothers her with more of his theory: men and women actually can be friends if they’re both already in a relationship. As before, Sally would rather Harry just bother somebody else if he’s gonna bother with this stuff. A few years later still, both Harry and Sally are careerists living in Manhattan, both having just gotten out of a long-term relationship. Sally’s fell apart because she wanted kids and he didn’t. Harry’s fell apart because she cheated on him. Suddenly they are both equally vulnerable, each as unsure about their romantic lives as the other, and each in need of a friend. Without really trying, the two quickly become the other’s sounding board on all things, but especially about relationships in an ongoing exception to Harry’s rule. They don’t just become friends. They become best friends, and eventually, even Harry begins to believe that maybe he was wrong about that little theory of his.
There are a bunch of scenes in which Harry and Sally discuss the finer points of their romantic lives, and romance and sex in general, but the queen of them all—you know which one I’m talking about—is the diner scene. Harry and Sally are talking about sex and orgasms; Sally says all women fake it once in a while, and Harry says he’s never had it happen to him. He’d know the difference, he says with a kind of offhand confidence that stuns Sally in its bold stupidity, so she decides to show him how little he knows. Sally transforms into a sexual thespian right at the table, builds into an enthusiastically acted out fakie (which seems authentic enough, but what the hell do I know? I’m just as in the dark as Harry) that ends up commanding the attention of everyone in the diner and prompting one of the patrons to utter that immortal line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” But what makes this scene extra terrific—and for me, this movie’s moment of truth—is that when it ends, Harry’s got this big grin on his face because he appreciates just how much she showed him that he had no clue what he was talking about. And the satisfied grin on Sally is even better, for she has finally, for once, rendered Harry speechless. That scene, even though it’s about dishonesty, is a moment of truth for them, too.
Eventually, though, in all romantic stories, things get complicated, and just as Harry predicted, he and Sally do fall into bed together one fateful evening. What should be a wonderful moment for them both instead jumpstarts Harry’s every self-destructive, single-guy reflex, and he skedaddles from Sally’s place and doesn’t call her back for weeks. By the time they do see each other again—at their mutual friends’ wedding—he handles it so badly that we’re left seeing a beautiful relationship explode. It’s a tough moment, because this whole movie, so finely scripted by Nora Ephrom, so finely directed by Rob Reiner, and so finely acted by Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal with real chemistry and warmth…it kind of makes you feel like you’re watching two friends break up right in front of you. It ain’t a good feeling.
Neither are the painful scenes that follow as Harry tries fruitlessly to repair the damage. It’s a great sequence because we finally get to see Harry put in his romantic dues as finally swallows his pride and admits to her that he was an idiot. We sure can’t blame Sally for taking the olive branch, but we get why Harry keeps offering it.
Of course, there’s a genuine and happy ending here, not to fear. Throughout the movie, we see these various vignettes of old married couples who discussing how they met and how they stayed together. When we finally get to see Harry and Sally tell the camera how it is they came to meet in the same format, it’s perhaps the first time in the whole movie when we see the two of them talking with each other and not at each other, and we know that whatever comes next, high or low, these two are gonna make it. That’s the sweetest payoff a movie like this can ever offer, because you believe it. Love always wins. It’s just that sometimes, it takes a while.