The hits keep on coming in the BFI’s Love season. With 1989’s When Harry Met Sally…, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, we find the romantic comedy refining itself as it entered into what now looks increasingly like something of a golden age – the decade that would offer date-night audiences everything from Sleepless in Seattle to The Last Days of Disco, via Before Sunrise, to snuggle up to and smooch along with.
Much of the polished sophistry that was to define Nineties romcom discourse was already in place here. Ephron and leading lady Meg Ryan (in her pre-Parkinson, twinkly-eyed, button-nosed phase) became genre touchstones, of course; Reiner’s biggest contribution is to spray on an aspirational lacquer that extends to Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack, and a dramatis personae of young professional New Yorkers blessed with the disposable income and reading level to meet cute in bookstores. The balcony on which Ryan and Billy Crystal see in New Year together surely looks out onto Monica’s apartment in Friends.
There is, too, a certain sophistication about Ephron’s chief narrative conceit. By intercutting/interrupting the on-off courtship of friends-with-deferred-benefits Harry (Crystal) and Sally (Ryan) with talking-head contributions from long-domesticated old dears, she not only suggests a romcom version of Warren Beatty’s Reds, but also how each generation finds courtship more difficult – and then, at the crunch, every bit as easy as – the one before.
With its foodie jokes (“Pesto is the quiche of the Eighties”), games of Win, Lose or Draw and prominently positioned Robert Ludlow novels, the film qualifies as late-80s modern: Ephron was so ahead of her time magazine editors hadn’t as yet given her theme a name, but the film now effectively stands up as a relaxed picking-over of the much-discussed notion of friendzoning.
Yet it’s also, in so many ways, timeless: a film informed by the battle-of-the-sexes comedies of the 1930s and 40s – centred on a couple who initially can’t stand one another but learn they can’t stand to be without one another – but with those films’ manic screwball filtered through the mellowness of the previous decade’s Annie Hall. (The montages of the lovers spending time together on Manhattan streets have a distinctly Allen-ish feel.)
Arguably, it’s all still a little too smooth – yet another prominent romantic comedy that makes finding a soulmate as easy as slipping into one’s PJs, which perhaps explains why successive generations of singletons have adopted it as cinematic comfort food. For all its so-called honesty on the matter of how guys and dolls talk, some slight-of-hand is evident: bad dates and heartbreak are mostly elided, while the much-quoted orgasm setpiece remains as a testament to Ephron and Reiner’s commitment to giving everyone a good time. (Crystal has to discuss his divorce in the middle of a Mexican wave.)
And of all the elements put into play here, the one that didn’t really take is the leading man, who retains traces of the abrasive, self-regarding stand-up he once was, and sometimes feels too much of a wiseass to deserve the affection Ryan comes to bestow upon him. (When Crystal sought a self-directed return to the genre with 1995’s Forget Paris, nobody showed up.) This genre was about to get more generous, if slightly less sharp – in short, it was about to get Hanksed, and cuddlier, often cutesier with that.
That said, for those of us who survived those frenetic Noughties romcoms that junked Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey’s promising careers, its crisp professionalism comes as a breath of fresh air; and particularly after the despairing, neurotic The Lobster – a romcom for those too busy swiping left and right to really know what they want – there’s a cherishable optimism in the way Reiner and Ephron promote the longer game. Some couples, no matter what we project onto them, just work together. A quarter century on from their first meeting, Harry and Sally still do.
(MovieMail, December 2015)
When Harry Met Sally... screens on BBC1 at 10.50pm tonight.