It was a Rob Reiner kind of Saturday night.
“When Harry Met Sally” has been sitting on our DVD player since the week after Nora Ephron died, but Kase and I finally watched it after finishing up “The American President.” (Chills, always: “My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the president.”)
Only a fool would cast aspersions in the direction of “When Harry Met Sally,” a romantic comedy that has taken its place alongside “Annie Hall” and “Broadcast News” as the filet of the genre, but it’s probably not as great great as you remember. (I hadn’t watched it in at least 10 years.) Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan have passable chemistry, but you never get the sense that they actually are anything more than best friends. (Three years after “When Harry Met Sally,” Cameron Crowe released “Singles,” which did the friend-lover thing better with the relationships between both Campbell Scott and Bridget Fonda and Scott and Kyra Sedgwick.) Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher are wonderful as the best friends, but the film never really feels big enough. Harry and Sally’s immediate circle is comically small, though maybe that has something to do with the fact that “When Harry Met Sally” takes place in a world before social networking. At one point, Fisher’s Marie pulls out a plastic case of index cards to give Sally a phone number.
Of course that doesn’t take away from the fact that Ephron’s script is loaded with outstanding observations and contains a ton of lines still quoted to this day. (It’s basically the Generation X version of “Casablanca.”) The dialogue feels too written at times, but no matter: Ephron had a sharp ear for Upper West Side-speak, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
What struck me on re-watch — especially after Ephron’s untimely death — was how much Harry was her mirror image. “I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I’ll know how it turned out,” Harry says to Sally during their meet-cute phase, a quote that was often repeated by Ephron herself. Harry is also the character going through a divorce and an affair, something Ephron could obviously relate to as well. Sally may have been the aspiring journalist — and she gets her own Ephron-y streak as New York City hardens her up — but it’s Harry who feels like her direct stand-in for the writer. Male and female screenwriters are often accused of misrepresenting the opposite sex, but here’s Ephron basically writing herself as the leading man. Let’s face it: That’s kind of incredible.
All in all, “When Harry Met Sally” is a great romantic comedy, one possibly injured by the fact that so many romantic comedies have tried to emulate it over the last 20 years: Nicolas Stoller and Jason Segel should basically pay Reiner and Ephron’s estate some of kind finder’s fee for the ways they rip “When Harry Met Sally” off in the still-solid “The Five-Year Engagement.” What it’s not, however, is “Annie Hall. (Though, really, what is?) It’s more like the play Alvy Singer writes about Annie Hall in ”Annie Hall.” All things considered, that’s not a bad consolation prize.