MGM // 1989 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // February 4th, 2008
"You made a woman meow?"
The Academy Awards really had shafted some noteworthy films in 1989, and two of them were romantic comedy-dramas about two people who start out as friends and then end up falling in love. Unlike other films of their ilk, however, these two films were equally special for all those involved. The lead actors had perfect chemistry. The screenplays were intelligently written, dodging every single cliché in the book. There were unforgettable moments of humor and warmth which still resonate almost 20 years later. And, many people consider them their favorite films of all time.
One of those films was Say Anything..., in which Cameron Crowe made an auspicious writing and directing debut, and it's remembered for John Cusack holding a boombox up in the air playing the song "In Your Eyes." The iconic moment of When Harry Met Sally..., on the other hand, was a hundred degrees different. Even more so, this cinematic centerpiece revealed a startling revelation about women that few men knew, and it was one of hundreds of brilliant touches added by screenwriter Nora Ephron, who was nominated for an Oscar. Regardless, the Academy thought that Driving Miss Daisy was the film of the year though, arguably, I think most audiences preferred what Ephron was having.
The now-classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally was originally released on DVD by MGM as part of its "Contemporary Classics" assembly line in 2001, with an adequate but unremarkable transfer. What's worse, the disc was tepid when it came to the extras, including a quiet, uninvolving commentary by Rob Reiner, a trailer, and some deleted scenes. Now, MGM has now done right by releasing a brand new Collector's Edition, with a generous helping of special features that fans will love to buy. But is the double-dipping really worth it?
The film opens up outside the University of Chicago in 1977. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal, City Slickers) is taking a long time saying goodbye to his girlfriend of the moment, which is upsetting Sally Albright (Meg Ryan, You've Got Mail). Sally has been given the task of driving Harry to New York as a simple favor. Soon after starting a discussion, Sally is rather repelled at Harry's off-the-wall sensibilities -- which include eating grapes and spitting the pits out the window. When the discussion then spirals into sex and relationships, Harry makes it clear that he and Sally could never be friends because sex will get into the way. The two go about their separate ways with little interest in seeing in each other again.
Flash forward five years later. Sally has found a boyfriend and is currently saying goodbye to him at the airport when Harry comes out of nowhere and recognizes her. Harry pretends like he doesn't remember her, but soon confronts her with questions on the plane ride to New York. Sally still feels uncomfortable around Harry, so the discussion this time ends when she declines Harry's offer to take her to dinner. While it's certainly much more cordial than Harry asking to her to share a hotel room five years ago, Sally goes off not intending to see him again.
Flash forward another five years later. Sally has just broken up with her boyfriend, and Harry has recently split up with his wife. The two run into each other again, naturally, in a book store, and they pick up their conversation again. Sally notices immediately that Harry's attitude as cooled since she last spoke to him, and thus feels compelled to spend more time with him, if only because both of their love lives are in the dumpster. The actually form a deep, devoted, and genuine friendship with each other, but agree that sex should never come into the equation. Needless to say, they both underestimate their feelings towards one another.
Admittedly, the story of When Harry Met Sally... sounds like pure formula. What's completely original -- for 1989, at least -- is Nora Ephron's dead-on, razor-sharp observations on modern-day relationships, as well as her supremely witty dialogue, which remains fresh even after repeat viewings. Before hooking up with Rob Reiner for When Harry Met Sally..., she had only written two scripts, both for director Mike Nichols: 1983's Silkwood and 1986's Heartburn, the latter of which is based on her novel of the same name, documenting a marriage gone sour and leading to divorce. All three of these films feature strong female characterizations, though this was really the first time that Ephron tweaked with her funny bone.
Now, as many of you know, she is one of the most successful writer-directors in Hollywood, which is a tremendous achievement for a woman. Her contemporaries like Nancy Myers, Mary Harron, and Sofia Coppola are there too, though it's shameful that it's such a rarity. At any rate, going back to When Harry Met Sally..., Ephron's script is so good that I honestly can't think of any romantic comedies since the film's release that tops it. On top of all that, the film pulls off the impossible by not having an audience that is exclusively female, but an equal number of both sexes; word of warning: any male that refers to this film as a "chick flick" will expect a face slap from me.
Rob Reiner had directed a handful of films before When Harry Met Sally..., though this one was his first big hit. He had worked with Crystal before (The Princess Bride) and he even did romantic comedy before (The Sure Thing, my personal favorite of his films), so he seemed ideal for this material -- next to Woody Allen, that is. One thing he was an expert in was capturing facial expressions, because that is what registers laughter from the audience more often than not. This is especially prevalent in the famous delicatessen scene, though the aspect can be seen throughout the film. Combined with Ephron's hilarious dialogue, it proved to be a winning combination inside and out.
Quite possibly the single most important requirement for a romantic comedy to work, however, is that the leads must have chemistry. You need characters that you can empathize and understand -- as well as root for -- and the teaming of comic Billy Crystal and the lovely Meg Ryan proved to be a match made in heaven. Crystal added some of his own material to the script via improvisation and it all gels, though it was really Ryan that shined so brightly that she literally became a star overnight. While she did have pivotal roles in such 80s films as Top Gun and Innerspace, she had mostly been cast because of a) her beauty or b) being a satisfactory love interest. To this day, I think she is one of the few actresses who is not only gorgeous, but also extremely talented and funny.
Indeed, the indomitable combination of Ephron, Reiner, Crystal, and Ryan was like lightning striking, but we must not ignore the supporting cast as well. Since shaking off her Star Wars persona, Carrie Fisher had gotten some training with Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters), which contributed greatly to her delicious role as Sally's friend Marie, and the late Bruno "Baby Fish Mouth" Kirby is uproarious as Harry's buddy. Sally's boyfriend Joe is played by Steven Ford (son of Prez Gerald), and Crystal's later girlfriend is played by Reiner's daughter Tracy. However, it would be wrong not to mention the director's mother Estelle, who was given one of the greatest lines in movie history which -- contrary to popular belief -- was not in the script, but Crystal's invention.
As far as the crew is concerned, kudos should go to cinematographer Barry Sonnenfield for his lavish use of NYC locations, and Robert Leighton's exquisite editing. Marc Shaiman's simple piano score is both romantic and punctual, though Harry Connick, Jr. (who was only 20 years old at the time) contributes greatly, with updated renditions of Louis Armstrong and George Gershwin favorites. Plus, three time Oscar winner Jennifer Warnes (An Officer and a Gentleman, Dirty Dancing) manages to contribute a song to the soundtrack.
Many of you are probably thinking, "Ok, ok, good stuff...but is this 'Collector's Edition' really worth buying?" As Ryan would scream, "Ohhh, ohhh, oh God...YES, YES, YES!"
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print is admittedly not much different than the 2001 release, though one thing is for sure: it certainly doesn't look like a film from 1989. Sure, there are some minor dated things such as Rolodexes and Singing Machines, but the print itself has solid black levels with no color bleeding or detected edge enhancement. There is still a slight softness present, though that is most likely due to the film's age; regardless, When Harry Met Sally... looks like it could have been shot last year. On the audio side, we have a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital track, as well as 2.0 DD tracks in English, French, and Spanish. Since this is a dialogue-driven film, any one of the tracks suits its purpose. Subtitles are also provided in English and Spanish. All in all, the picture and sound quality get no objections from me.
The cornucopia of special features begin with a feature-length audio commentary with director Rob Reiner, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and actor Billy Crystal, which is a vast improvement from the 2001 Reiner-only commentary. All three are given equal latitude to speak, resulting in a delightful series of anecdotes, inspirations, and memories. Ephron, in particular, stands out, if only for correcting Reiner's recollections from the shooting, while Crystal sits back and makes some funny riffs. They all seem to be having a great time, and its kind of disappointing that Ryan wasn't available to join them. One odd fact that you might find interesting is that the distributor requested them not to use profanity during the commentary...despite the fact that profanity is present in the movie! And that brings up another point that Ephron makes, which is that Ryan's fake orgasm unjustifiably earned the picture an R rating, though I'm sure that the film's F-words would have garnered the rating anyway. One thing I can't argue with Ephron about, however, was the logical possibility that this film is what made Americans start carrying bottles of water everywhere. Fans of the film will not want to miss the commentary, one of the best I've heard in awhile.
Second on the bonus list is seven deleted scenes, which seem to be all holdovers from the 2001 release. While the footage is far from ripe visually, there is some good stuff to be found here, including an amusing banter between Ryan and Crystal on how many women he's slept with. The theatrical trailer has also been included, which holds up fairly well but not recommended unless you've seen the film already. Apparently, MGM felt the need to include a promotional piece on romantic studio films, including Reiner's The Princess Bride. What's really unnecessary, though, is a "preview" of the Special Edition DVD of West Side Story -- which was released back in 2003!
Finally, we come to the all-new featurettes, which are all more than
* "It All Started Like This" (19:47) -- Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron hook up to share some memories on how they started working together, and what led to the final draft of the film. Some things are repeated from the commentary track, though it's still such a delight to actually see them talking to each other.
* "Stories of Love" (5:10) -- This brief featurette focuses on the older couples and the stories they share through the course of the film.
* "When Rob Met Billy" (3:55) -- Quick take on how Reiner and Crystal came to work together.
* "Creating Harry" (5:47) -- The character of Harry Burns is fleshed out.
* "I Love New York" (8:28) -- A look at how the film succeeded in Woody Allen territory.
* "What Harry Meeting Sally Meant" (12:29) -- The critical reception of the film and how it is viewed today; Carrie Fisher drops by for an interview.
* "So, Can Men And Women Really Be Friends? " (7:53) -- Very amusing social study of the sexual tension between men and women in friendships and relationships. Interviews include a Reiner, Crystal, a Sociology professor and a sex therapist!
Ted Kennedy was shot? No...
Just in time for Valentine's Day, this film is ideal viewing for men and women. Need I say more?
The fantastic four of Reiner, Crystal, Ryan and Ephron are all acquitted. MGM is found not guilty, and the court extends its gratitude for a marvelous Collector's Edition of one of the great romantic comedies of all time. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #46
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Feature Audio Commentary with Director Rob Reiner, Writer Nora Ephron, and Actor Billy Crystal
* Deleted Scenes
* "What Harry Meeting Sally Meant"
* "I Love New York"
* "Stories of Love"
* "It All Started Like This"
* "When Rob Met Billy"
* "Creating Harry"
* "So, Can Men and Women Really Be Friends?"
* Original Theatrical Trailer