My formative years were evenly split between watching romantic comedies and action films and TV series, depending on which parent was in charge of entertainment on the night. As the result, I have got the fondest memories of Walker, Texas Ranger and Under Siege. I also have very low tolerance for Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, whether together or separately.
Looking back, it was the genres’ relationship with credibility that was crucial. Action films, with their epic juxtapositions of good versus evil, with the ever-resourceful hero (‘Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door’), and an infinite number of stunts and special effects, are not supposed to be realistic. It is highly unlikely that the viewer themselves will ever be fighting off an invasion of zombies, or Nazis, or Nazi zombies in very well-preserved uniforms. The narrative can be enjoyed as pure fantasy, wonderfully camp and, although violent, not imploring empathy that would make the audience uncomfortable with the on-screen brutality. (That is how Quentin Tarantino gets away with the death toll in his productions. Also, if you are interested how many people have checked out early in his films, video essayist Kevin B. Lee has counted them for you.)
Romantic comedies, on the other hand, deal with emotions and, specifically, love. While many of these films are fantasies as well (Pretty Woman or She’s All That or, more obviously, 13 Going on 30), the viewer must find them relatable. Tear-jerkers do not work unless you share the characters’ emotional journey, nor does the happy ending feel like a deserved and just finale if you had not been there with Bridget through her many mishaps.
In other words, the particulars can be extravagant but the dramatic structure has to be recognisable. When I was eleven and going through my big heartbreak, every single corny song on the radio was about me. I was Toni Braxton and I was Cher and I was, most certainly, Megara in Disney’s Hercules.
Rom coms, as a genre, have a great many weak examples because their stock characters and visuals are often expected to do all the work. Runaway Bride fails at being a credible dramatic and emotional piece, despite its seemingly realistic setting, because at its core the film is flat and poorly-written, with no connection between its leads.
When Harry Met Sally… is a classic romantic comedy. I had my reservations. They were unfounded.
While I am still in awe of the fact that Billy Crystal could ever be the romantic hero on screen, When Harry Met Sally… is worthy of its critical acclaim. This is a gentle, clever, and funny film where gender dynamics (thankfully) come with a 1989 timestamp. The best and least predictable part is Nora Ephron’s writing which sets When Harry Met Sally… apart from the typical and conventional romantic comedies.
Although the main characters are a particular kind of people (as Caryn James said in her review for The New York Times, ‘intelligent, successful, neurotic New Yorkers’, so often depicted by Woody Allen), they are people and not abstract constructs or stock figures. In opposition to the whirlwind romance trope, Sally and Harry take their time developing feelings for each other. The opening scene is set in 1977 and the happy ending takes place as late as 1989, the year the comedy came out. The characters manage to grow and change, on their own and in relation to each other.
Harry: You were so uptight then. You’re much softer now.
Sally: You know, I hate that kind of remark. It sounds like a compliment, but really it’s an insult.
Harry: Okay, you’re still as hard as nails.
There is nothing inevitable about this love story. Throughout the film Harry and Sally enter other relationships, and those go well until they don’t. We are not given clumsy hints of ‘the other guy is a terrible person because he makes her sit in the aisle seat’ (The Wedding Singer) or ‘this woman is not capable of loving anyone but herself’ (Catherine Zeta-Jones in America’s Sweethearts). Timing and chance seem to be the decisive factors, not the deficiency of the competition.
We leave the main characters as they are sharing the details of their wedding, sitting on a couch previously occupied by other interviewees. Those others had been happy elderly couples telling the stories of how they had met. The stories involved decades of separation, and decades of seeing other people, and an arranged marriage. The film script was clever enough to echo Shakespeare’s ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’, and to suggest that it’s never over till it’s over. Given the difference of age between our protagonists and the other couples, this is not necessarily it for Harry and Sally. But it is the end of this particular plotline.
Speaking of larger narrative, it was wonderful to see Carrie Fisher in something other than Star Wars (she plays the part of Marie, Sally’s best friend), and especially when she delivers a great performance. Meg Ryan, Sally herself, is lovely and funny and simply very good. The orgasm imitation scene at Katz’s Delicatessen — see the third still up — made me snort, laugh, giggle, and chortle.
There is a certain resemblance between the script of When Harry Met Sally… and the first season of Sex and the City, when the show did not yet develop into a fashion extravaganza structured around a wildly self-centred protagonist. Subplots involving passing characters, snippets of New York lives, the difference between sexes and how they address love and intimacy — all of this, and even the presentation style, reminded of Ephron’s screenplay. That same screenplay got her a British Academy Film Award, a Writers Guild of America Award, and an Oscar nomination.
This was a good film. As for its rather poor tagline ‘Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?’, the answer is yes, and no, and yes. Yes. Yes, yes, yes! Yes!
Filmography: When Harry Met Sally…, directed by Rob Reiner. United States, 1993. (IMDb)
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Not a Day Without an Adventure. June 20th, Day Twenty: Singing a duet.
This was rather a desperate attempt to squeeze in my daily adventure programme as the clock was approaching midnight. That said, it was not all that bad — just bad three quarters through.
Sam suggested we sing a duet, and so we did: in bed, propped against the pillows we happily shouted lines from a karaoke YouTube version of ‘All That Jazz’. (Can I just pause to mentally admire Catherine Zeta-Jones? Thank you.) We both love, love, love Chicago and tend to break into songs from the film at any opportune moment. Like this one day, when I came home, and I am really irritated, and I’m looking for a bit of sympathy. And there’s he layin’ on the couch. Ahem. Anyway, I digress.
Dear reader, it was not musical, it was not harmonised, it was not pretty. We were happy to discover afterwards that Steve (our housemate) did not hear our attempt at being Cook County Jail inmates. I am not sure about our next-door neighbours — they could be scarred forever.
Current album: Two Door Cinema Club, Are We ready? (Wreck) (Single)
Current book: Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Current TV series: Scream Queens, Series 1 (2015)