Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Signal Watch Watches: When Harry Met Sally (for the first time)

My co-worker and I decided to try a movie exchange.  She generally seems to have good taste, but turns her nose up a bit at genre content and still holds the same prejudices she developed in the 80's when she was told "sci-fi is dumb".  Somehow it came to pass that after I let her know I had never seen When Harry Met Sally, that I was informed by her and another colleague that I had to watch it.

The explanation she made, that I bought, was that When Harry Met Sally is the quintessential modern romantic comedy from which all other rom-coms flowed.  It tried to be real, but cute and quirky, and whatever else.

"Fair enough," I said.  "But it's an exchange."

Pondering quintessential movies of the 80's, of course I immediately leaped to Commando, but in the end opted for RoboCop.  I figured she was less likely to be furious with me.  Also, I think RoboCop is a genuinely smart movie.  She watched it, and through gritted teeth lied about enjoying it.  My hat was off, and the game was on.

So, this evening, I watched When Harry Met Sally (1989).  

this movie would have been 100x better if it would have actually been about giants trampling Manhattan beneath their feet (and finding love & each other)

It is, of course, more than 20 years since the movie saw its release, and we're so far away from the date of the impact that water has filled the crater and evidence of the change is there only if you realize that's not just a tree-filled valley.  The plot and ideas have been imitated to death, its gags have become part of the zeitgeist, and I now believe it added the phrases "high maintenance" and "low maintenance" to the lexicon.  I was well aware of the "Sally fakes it in the deli" scene, which was more or less the essence of Sex and City every minute of every episode for its entire duration, so, credit where credit is due.

I'm not sure When Harry Met Sally is exactly the groundbreaking movie its made out to be so much as its a Woody Allen comedy softened and de-Allenified for the flyover states.  Sort of...  Annie Hall with 35% more attention to the female character's perspective and the feeling that these are actual people and not characters muted by 75% and a more "everyman" in place of Woody Allen.  Also (spoiler alert) it has a happy ending.

In 2012, of course, Rob Reiner (director) and Nora Ephron (writer) have gone through cycles of believing their own BS enough that Ephron had flamed out with You've Got Mail as early as 1998 (we will try not to mention warning-sign flick Mixed Nuts [1994] if we do not have to, and we'd like our money back and an apology, please).  Reiner was the one with the amazing run of movies from This is Spinal Tap to Misery.  But now he sort of does feel-good stuff, walk on parts on TV shows, I dunno.  He hasn't gone full-Lucas on us, but its a long way from Stand By Me.

Billy Crystal, the last walking vaudevillian, is affable as the "let's cast a guy other guys will like well enough, not feel threatened by, and he's funny without being a turn-off for women like Robin Williams."  I have been told a million times how attractive I find Meg Ryan, but...  and I'm sorry, Ms. Ryan, but I don't get the appeal.  She always sort of struck me as a sort of generically attractive cipher who politely doesn't distract from her co-stars.

The plot to When Harry Met Sally is a cute idea, and while I was well aware of the concept, I give it high marks for feeling a lot less forced than I'd imagined.  I had heard the basis of the movie was that "men can't just be friends with women because sex gets in the way", and, for good or ill in my own personal life, apparently that's not really a problem.

The universal truths the movie was suggesting probably felt very real and immediate to singles living in New York or LA or any city, really, circa 1989.  But the movie never really gives the characters any definition of themselves outside of a few personality quirks and their relationship.  I never felt like I knew what the characters actually wanted, were about, etc...  They're both set up with interesting sounding careers, for example, but aside from naming those careers, they never talk about their jobs or their day, etc...  I'm not suggesting the movie would have been better talking about their careers, but what it leaves us with is two people defined against the silhouette of their pre-destined-or-we-wouldn't-be-watching-this non-love-affair. Its not really a surprise they'll get together, which leaves us with the opportunity to see Billy Crystal doing his bits and Meg Ryan smiling gamely.

Had I been 14 when I saw the movie, I am sure it would have felt much fresher.  The New York is a storybook New York with Christmas lights and perfectly hued autumn leaves in appropriate scenes.  I wouldn't have been a grown-assed adult with ideas about human relationships, and I wouldn't have mentally dismissed everyone associated with the film but Carrie Fisher.

The natural feeling to the movie breaks in half as we round into the 3rd act, when Sally and Harry semi-accidentally have sex, at which point I sort of lost track of what was happening.  Sally, who has seemingly never been all that interested in Harry is devastated as Harry reacts like a sitcom character all but leaving a Harry-shaped hole in the door as he cartoonishly scrambles to escape her bed.  I suppose it was somewhat new to suggest to mainstream cinema audiences that sex was happening in this way, and so, good?, but...  from that point to the inevitable "will they or will they?", the answer to the question is never really in doubt.

As mentioned above:  Meg Ryan's Sally is a cipher.  She's the model modern female protagonist, free of Donna Reed perfection but with adorably annoying quirks.  Kudos to Ephron for not inventing "the pratfalling female protagonist" nor showing Sally singing Aretha Franklin into a hairbrush, but aside from a Mary Sue-ish sort of "even her quirks are great", I had no idea who the character was by the time the film ended other than "the woman who finds Billy Crystal charming instead of rolling her eyes at him".

two tragically normal-sized people meet and sort of have a thing

I'd point back to Annie Hall where the lead's attempts at figuring out Annie was a bit like nailing jello to the wall, and the attempt to solve the mystery of the person was part of the story - if not the the story.  Annie felt three-dimensional even as she felt elusive (probably because Allen reportedly wrote the part about Keaton and then cast her).

A few items of note:

I've been sold a lot on how "true" one is supposed to find When Harry Met Sally.  I guess I didn't find much to relate to, and the oft-quoted dialog reads like the covers of the self-help books that were exploding in 1989.  "I want what I want" isn't a manifesto.

"Men and women can never be friends because of sex" and here's why seems to be the argument of the movie.  Or something.  I found the message muddled at best, and the conclusions a bit off-putting, especially when you start with a male protagonist who begins from a perspective of believing he should bed every woman who passes in front of him.  Yes, he overcomes that feeling in the wake of his own life crumbling and his libido destroyed by crippling depression, but it seemed a temporary condition and not necessarily part of a path of growth.

The genre of the rom-com doesn't do much for me as I can barely keep my eyes focused when people I know and love start telling me about their personal trials and tribulations around love.  I like to think I show enlightened self-interest when it comes to the romantic entanglements of others and am constantly asking "how does this affect me?".  This movie asks that we care about these two, and I was never really sure why I was supposed to get invested.  They don't even face any challenges in the course of the film other than their own scripted awkwardness at the turn to the 3rd act.  Luckily, When Harry Met Sally is sort of the weight, texture and consistency of cotton candy.  It looks like it might be something worth paying for, its quick to ingest, its sweet, it wasn't that expensive and unless you consume too much of it, its more or less harmless expect for the fact that your teeth are now blue.

I do want to point out that this is all relative.  In 2012, this movie, seems like a bit of genius in comparison to the contrivances and schlocky set-ups of your average Katherine Heigle vehicle or Kate Hudson trainwreck.  I don't think the movie is actually that bad, it just missed the mark of living up to its reputation.  Go see Annie Hall.  And I may finally watch Manhattan to cleanse the palette.


RHPT said...

You don't have a single romantic bone in your body, do you?

The League said...

That's not what your mom said.


I don't know that I'm entirely unromantic. I just have to buy the romance that I'm being sold when it comes to fiction. I don't know that this movie really gave me much to root for. It was virtually conflict free for the couple in question, so why should I be impressed with their story?

I'm more impressed with a "overcoming tough/ impossible odds to find/ thanks to their love" sort of guy than a "here's two cute Yuppies. If you put them in a room, they'll find a reason to sleep together" kind of guy.

J.S. said...

I would have been utterly shocked if you had given this movie a positive review.

The League said...

Yeah. It's not just not in my wheelhouse, its not in my wheel neighborhood.