Anne Marie here on the 25th anniversary of a genre classic.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any romcom made after 1989 owes large thematic debts to When Harry Met Sally… From the Meet Cute to the Bickering Couple to the Final Romantic Gesture (usually involving holidays and/or running), When Harry Met Sally… set a template that has defined an entire genre, and--depending on who you ask--killed that genre as well. But despite the cliches, Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron’s Oscar-nominated comedy script continues to sparkle 25 years later, because it is not a movie about romantic gestures. It is a story about people; their observations, their oversights, and most importantly, their food.
Watching When Harry Met Sally… for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking New Yorkers do nothing but eat and argue. As Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) meet, separate, meet again, fall into friendship, and fall in love, they do so against an ever-rotating backdrop of restaurants and parties. (Apparently nobody in New York cooks at home either.) A lingering fear in romantic comedies--a genre about bringing people together--is the fear of being alone, and these are public spaces that force the characters to interact with each other and avoid the lonely New York death that Harry jokes about early on. Most importantly, these settings also givethem a chance to eat.
It comes as no surprise that the woman who would write Julie & Julia twenty years later would be so interested in how food reveals character. Ephron establishes both of her young characters through how they eat. Of course, Sally’s infamously detailed instructions to the first waitress immediately brand the young blonde as a perfectionist who likes control. Meg Ryan's best scenes are ordering from the menu, which she does with neither self-consciousness nor self-awareness, making Sally opinionated but not apolagetic, and somehow very funny.
Sally Albright: But I'd like the pie heated and I don't want the ice cream on top, I want it on the side, and I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it, if not then no ice cream just whipped cream but only if it's real; if it's out of the can then nothing.
Waitress: Not even the pie?
Sally Albright: No, I want the pie, but then not heated.
But Harry is also announced through his food, or rather through his bad manners while eating it. In their very first interaction sharing a car driving into New York, Harry introduces himself to Sally and the audience by talking through a mouthful of masticated grapes, and spitting grape seeds at the window. He’s messy, but he’s relaxed. (Minor characters also interact this way, including a brief fling of Harry's who is wrong for him because she bakes and he hates sweets, and Marie and Jess, who bond on a blind date over an article about wine.) Even when they're eating instead of talking, Harry and Sally are deliberately drawn opposites.
In between bites of food, Harry and Sally work as mouthpieces for Ephron’s musings and philosophies on relationships. When Harry Met Sally… plays as a series of dinner table debates interrupted periodically by plot, sex, or food. It’s a testament to Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s charming chemistry that they can make the discussion feel like action, and not just while banging on the table with fake orgasms. Harry and Sally discuss sex, loneliness, real estate, death, the ending of Casablanca, and anything else that pops into Ephron’s mind.
Primarily, they concern themselves with one question: Can men and women remain friends? Or, to update it to 2014, “Is attraction an insurmountable obstacle to friendship?” Twenty five years later, it’s still a question that single people ask themselves. For the last few years, we've been hearing the supposed death knell of the romantic comedy, with the insistence that this genre is too cliche. But the fact that I had the friend vs romantic partner debate last week says to me that this foreboding may be a bit premature. The best new romcoms, like Obvious Child, are movies that carry on Nora Ephron's real legacy: some scattered observations, a question or two, and maybe a little bit of comfort food.