Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — When Harry Met Sally (1989)
When December rolls around, everyone starts talking favorite Christmas movies, comparing It’s a Wonderful Life to Christmas Vacation, debating whether Elf or Home Alone is better, and more than a few trying to defend the merits of Love Actually. But what about New Year’s Eve movies? What’s the perfect flick to put on after the 25th has passed us by and the 31st comes near? Not the movie New Year’s Eve, God no. And not the cheesy ’80s horror movie, New Year’s Evil. No, the one grand-daddy of all New Year’s Eve movies is Rob Reiner’s 1989 comedy classic, When Harry Met Sally. It’s not just a great movie. It also happens to be my favorite romantic comedy of all time.
Is there any director who had a better streak that Reiner had between 1984 and 1990? What made his run especially impressive is that each film explored a different genre. This is Spinal Tap, The Real Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery. All terrific films, all vastly different from one another. Many of these have gone on to become modern classics, but my favorite of the lot has to be When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the roles that continue to define them as performers on-screen. This film shows these two actors at their very best.
The late Nora Ephron received a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for her clever and breezy screenplay, telling a love story that takes place over twelve long years before the main characters realize they’re in love with each other. This is one of those rare movies where every single scene crackles with energy, jokes, and honesty. The first two sequences set five years apart from each other could have been awkward, could have felt like prologues, but they do a great job setting up two characters that we love and want to be together by the time we get to the present day story-line.
The most famous scene in When Harry Met Sally is of course the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” gag, which many can probably quote even if they’ve never seen the movie. It still holds up as a funny scene, but I do agree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the rare false moments in the film in that Sally as a character probably wouldn’t do what she does in the scene. I still give it a pass because it’s such a funny bit, but I’m more enamored with other, less familiar scenes in the film, like when Harry freaks out about a coffee table, or when Sally tells of a dream in which she gets stripped naked, or when Harry and Sally have it out at their best friends’ wedding.
And then there’s the New Year’s Eve ending that still gets me every time. The speech Harry gives to her and her reaction could have been too cutesy and sentimental, but it works beautifully because the words feel truthful and earned, and by the end we’ve come to love these characters so much that to not let them be together would be a narrative crime. We then cut to that perfect closer, Harry and Sally now the interviewees, but there’s something about their kiss at the party that makes for one of the most satisfying romantic comedy endings ever. Ephron and Reiner used New Year’s Eve as a heartwarming closer better than any writer and director have used it before or since.
When Harry Met Sally is the ultimate New Year’s Eve movie, and it’s also just one damn great film. It’s one of the few movies I can watch over and over again, as much as once a year, and never tire of. Even some of my favorite movies ever I struggle to watch again and again, but not When Harry Met Sally. This is due to Ephron’s brilliant, funny, insightful screenplay. This is due to Reiner’s terrific direction. This is due to the charming performances by Crystal and Ryan, perfectly cast. There’s nothing I would change about When Harry Met Sally, the ultimate romantic comedy.
Watching Like a Writer
When Harry Met Sally makes me think about how to use time in my fiction, particularly when it comes to showing how a relationship evolves over the years, and it also makes me think about how to use New Year’s Eve in my fiction. A few years ago I wrote a short story called “New Year’s Kiss,” in some part inspired by the end of When Harry Met Sally, in which two young men meet on New Year’s Eve and fall for each other in the minutes leading up to the big fireworks moment. There’s so much possibility on New Year’s Eve, the kind I think can make for a compelling story!
How would you use the New Year’s Eve holiday in a short story or novel? Would it naturally come at the end of your narrative, or is there a way that you could start with New Year’s Eve and take your story from there?