Bless Harry and Sally’s hearts. Over the course of their 11 years under our bemused scrutiny, they actually talk to each other, in splendid, risible exchanges that fly by with the speed and delicacy of a great badminton game. Bless too, director Rob Reiner and credited screenwriter Nora Ephron for ladling out the pleasure with so generous and tender a hand. It makes “When Harry Met Sally . . .” (selected theaters) the summer’s uncorseted, unqualified delight.
While ostensibly sorting out the question of whether men and women can be friends, before or after sex raises its lovely head, “Harry/Sally” is actually casting a hopeful and persuasive eye on romance today, on marriage even. The film’s progression, with pit stops every four or five years, is separated by mock-documentary interviews as long-married couples cheerfully describe their fateful first meetings. Affection, as well as a simmering wit, is definitely in the air.
If that doesn’t sound quite like the Ephron of old (certainly not the Ephron of “Heartburn,” which had an undertaste so nasty you could be puckered for a month afterward), it’s possibly because Reiner and Billy Crystal, longtime collaborators, reportedly added a good deal themselves during the film making. Wherever it came from, the results are charming.
No one will miss the fact that this Manhattan-based talkfest, with Gershwin on the sound track and upscale, self-scrutinizing New Yorkers on the menu, has a distinct Woody Allen flavor. Agreed. However, “Harry/Sally” has an irresistible, crackling rhythm that is Reiner’s own. And is it necessarily bad if a film shares Allen’s territory and even some of his attitudes? Sheesh!
Sally (Meg Ryan) picks up Harry (Crystal) as the two make their way in her car from the University of Chicago campus to New York. It’s 1977. She’s just graduated; he’s just finished law school. New York, watch out.
Harry is also glued, lip, hip and anklebone, to Sally’s friend Amanda in the deathless melodrama of a farewell kiss. Then--bickering all the way--Harry and Sally begin what is to be a fateful ride-sharing. Amanda, watch out.
What follows are a series of dispatches from the singles skirmishing front, upscale-New York style. They cover marriage (she’s keeping her name) and divorce; living together and breaking up; affairs with married men and that full-blown horror, post-divorce dating. Rounding out the cast are Sally’s best friend Marie (Carrie Fisher, possessor of one of the most deft and deadly deadpans anywhere) and Harry’s buddy Jess (Bruno Kirby, perfect foil for both Harry and Marie).
As they skitter hesitantly around and then away from their fate, Ryan and Crystal’s work has a delicate comic buoyancy, amazing grace in action. Crystal seems to have the edge at the opening: He may be abrasive and self-absorbed but he has the movie’s funniest raunchy lines and a scorching delivery that seems to set the movie’s pace. He’s like a scrappy shortstop you can’t take your eyes off. What becomes touching is to find that under the mouth and the razzle-dazzle there’s a sweetheart, cover it though he might.
Ryan, on the other hand, grows on us from a slower start. As we meet her, 21 years old, with her exquisitely snippy nose permanently raised, she’s preternaturally sure of her likes and dislikes. Easy to be put off by so much certainty--although how can you resist a girl who knows she wouldn’t want to spend the rest of her life in Casablanca, married to a guy who runs a bar. (She maintains that Ingrid Bergman wouldn’t either. “Women are very practical, which is why she gets on that plane at the end.” Ah, youth.)
Fortunately, as Sally’s experience grows, she blossoms and so does her faintly fey sense of humor, resulting in the movie’s funniest moment, that about-to-be-infamous faked-orgasm-in-a-deli sequence. (The line that tops it--the movie’s and maybe the year’s best--delivered by director Reiner’s mother, Estelle, was reportedly Crystal’s contribution. And, frankly, none of this seems enough to give this film its R rating, when the bloody carnage of the newest Bond film walks off with a PG-13.)
Part of our fun comes from watching Harry and Sally mellow from college graduates, smug in their assurance that they know everything, to thirty-some-ers, appalled at the loneliness of the world out there, wanting to draw their wagons together in the dark and not exactly sure how to.
The other perverse giggle comes from the movie’s mirror of the trends and fashions during the decade-and-a-bit it covers. It may come with a shudder of recognition. Sneer all you will at Harry’s aggressively wide sideburns or Sally’s 1977 flip, but keep the family album closed when you do.
There is something that remains a little superficial to “Harry and Sally.” Although Harry may brood about his dark side, there are no shadowing strokes (as there were in Reiner’s “Stand by Me”) that might etch Harry or Sally or their milieu a little deeper. It may be a touch that people miss, or they may be grateful for the pace and the execution of the smart melee brightening the screen, the visual equivalent of Harry Connick Jr.'s Gershwin piano arrangements threaded throughout the movie.
In this perilous Summer of the Sequel, it seems churlish to want more than wit and sophistication on a bedrock of tenderness.
‘WHEN HARRY MET SALLY ...’
A Castle Rock Entertainment presentation in association with Nelson Entertainment. Producers Rob Reiner, Andrew Scheinman. Co-producers Jeffrey Stott, Steve Nicolaides. Director Reiner. Screenplay Nora Ephron. Music adapted, arranged by Marc Shaiman. Special musical performances & arrangements by Harry Connick Jr. Associate producer Ephron. Camera Barry Sonnenfeld. Production design Jane Musky. Editor Robert Leighton. Costumes Gloria Gresham. With Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Lisa Jane Persky, Steven Ford.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).