Few movies make me more nostalgic for New York than "When Harry Met Sally." As we move through the seasons, visiting Central Park in autumn and Coney Island in the spring, it's easy to imagine a young person watching for the first time and dreaming about life in the city. The reality is often magical, but it's 10,000 times better in the movies. Almost everything is 10,000 times better in the movies, which is why I spend so much of my time watching them. But do you know what ISN'T better? Dudes and their bullshit.
In real life, men consistently disappoint me. I've met enough of them to realize that blatant entitlement and fragile egos are par for the course. In romantic comedies, I stupidly expect better. In a world where everything is basically perfect, men should be enlightened and respectful. If I wanted to spend 90 minutes with some cretin who doesn't know how to treat women, I would hang out with my grandfather. When I watch a romantic comedy, I want to escape reality. I don't want the dude I dated sophomore year to be the leading man; I want someone better, like feminist Ryan Gosling.
Unfortunately, most leading men in romantic comedies are the exact opposite. Instead of someone with emotional intelligence, we're stuck with Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). As a young woman, I saw these men and their behavior represented in reality and on big and small screens. The more I saw it, the more I thought it was okay. Thankfully, I grew up, read Laura Mulvey, and realized how I had been systemically poisoned for the first seventeen years of my life. Society tries to tell us that romantic comedies are "for women" and yet ... none of the ideas they espouse are very appealing. More often than not, romantic comedies are depictions of what cis men want us to want and in an ideal world, what they want for themselves.
I am consistently saddened when I revisit movies I once loved and find that I can no longer enjoy them because the leading man is repulsive. Romantic comedies don't work in the same way when you actively root against the inevitable love match. After my 2018 rewatch, I regret to report that "When Harry Met Sally" falls into this bucket. Harry is garbage, Sally deserves better, and I can no longer view this movie with rose colored glasses. I realize that it's written by women (the Ephrons), but it's still a product of the 80s and adheres to terrible genre conventions of the time.
From the beginning, it's clear that Harry is not a good person. He's one of those dudes who thinks he knows everything and treats people who disagree with him like they are unequivocally wrong. When he and Sally stop for dinner on their road trip from Chicago to NYC, they have an infuriating conversation where he tries to convince her that she doesn't understand what constitutes great sex.
Harry: With whom did you have this great sex?
Sally: I'm not going to tell you that!
Harry: Fine, don't tell me.
Sally: Shel Gordon.
Harry: Shel? Sheldon? No, no, you didn't have great sex with ... Sheldon.
Sally: I did, too.
Harry: No you didn't. A Sheldon can do your income taxes. If you need a root canal Sheldon's your man, but humping and pumping is not Sheldon's strong suit. It's the name. Do it to me Sheldon, you're an animal Sheldon, ride me big Sheldon. Doesn't work.
I understand that the joke here revolves around how no one wants to fuck a Sheldon. It's a dumb joke, but only offensive to the Sheldons of the world (and I'm sure they're aware of their un-fuckability). The part of this conversation that upsets me is the suggestion that Sally is incapable of categorizing her own sexual experiences. If Sally says Sheldon is a good lover, then to her, he's got the goods. Harry doesn't get to tell her how she feels.
The next part of their conversation is equally irritating. The whole reason Sally and Harry are on this road trip together is because Harry's girlfriend/Sally's bff connected them. In theory, a mutual acquaintance should be enough to prevent either party from acting like a creep. In practice, not so much. As Sally tallies up the bill, Harry stares at her and marvels at how attractive she is. When Sally calls him out on this behavior and accuses him of coming on to her, he denies it and then attempts to argue his case.
Sally: So you're coming on to me!
Harry: No I wasn't. What? Can't a man say a woman is attractive without it being a come-on? Alright, alright, let's just say just for the sake of argument that it was a come-on. What do you want me to do about it? I take it back, ok? I take it back.
Sally refuses to indulge him, reiterates that she's not interested, and says she just wants to be friends. What follows is a conversation that neatly outlines the basic premise of the rest of the film: "Men and women can't be friends because the sex part always gets in the way." While this is sometimes true, it's not very nuanced. What this really means is that women are primarily for sex, and if Harry can't have sex with them, he isn't interested. When they arrive in New York after eighteen hours of driving, Harry and Sally part ways and don't have another encounter for five years.
When they meet the second time, Sally is in the airport with her boyfriend, Joe (Steven Ford). Harry sees them and makes polite, boring small talk with Joe, also a University of Chicago grad, and pretends to not know Sally. On the flight, Sally realizes that Harry is sitting behind her when he starts razzing her over her drink order and asking if they ever fucked. He clearly knows who she is and is just being a dick, but this behavior demonstrates that he's the same scumbag he was in college.
After harrassing Sally about the length of her relationship with Joe, Harry reveals that he's getting married to a woman named Helen Helson. Sally laughs at this news, because she finds it absurd. And it is absurd, which Harry confirms when he details the reason why he's marrying Helen.
Harry: Yeah plus you know you just get to a certain point where you get tired of the whole thing.
Sally: What "whole thing?"
Harry: The whole life-of-a-single-guy thing. You meet someone, you have the safe lunch, you decide you like each other enough to move on to dinner. You go dancing, you do the white-man's over-bite, go back to her place, you have sex and the minute you're finished you know what goes through your mind? How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home. Is thirty seconds enough?
It's sad that Harry thinks all relationships are so prescriptive. Not all women like to snuggle, and not all men hate snuggling. There are plenty of women who prefer casual sex over intimacy and there are countless men who do not. Our genitalia does not define our behavior, dammit. When the plane lands, Sally exits and attempts to read her newspaper in peace. Since Harry doesn't know when to quit, he catches up with her and once again, starts blathering on about male/female friendship. He asks her to dinner "as friends" and says it's okay, because they're both in relationships (an amendment to his original statement). Instead of stopping there, he continues theorizing and ends up immediately backtracking.
That doesn't work either because what happens then is the person you're involved with can't understand why you need to be friends with the person you're just friends with. Like it means something is missing from their relationship and "why do you have to go outside to get it?" Then when you say, "No no no no, it's not true nothing's missing from the relationship," the person you're involved with then accuses you of being secretly attracted to the person you're just friends with, which we probably are, I mean, come on, who the hell are we kidding, let's face it, which brings us back to the earlier rule before the amendment which is men and women can't be friends, so where does that leave us?
Sally, bless her heart, tells him to fuck off once more and we don't have to hear about his bullshit for another five years.
The next time we see Harry, it's independent of Sally. At a football game with Jess (Bruno Kirby), he reveals that his wife is leaving him for a tax attorney. The conversation is honest and Harry exhibits true vulnerability in front of his male friend, which is surprising given everything we know about him. Based on a previous conversation with girlfriends, we know that Sally is also single, having recently broken up with Joe. The two eventually run into each other in Shakespeare & Co and finally have a conversation that doesn't completely fill me with rage.
Initially, Harry and Sally forge a friendship fueled by their mutual sadness. Since they're both going through breakups at the same time, they can commiserate with each other over their newfound loneliness and lifestyle adjustments. After the bookstore encounter and coffee, Harry gives a weak ass apology for his past behavior and brings the conversation back to the craziness of female friends.
Sally: I just didn't want to sleep with you and you had to write it off as a character flaw instead of dealing with the possibility that it might have something to do with you.
Harry: What's the statute of limitation on apologies?
Sally: Ten years.
Harry: Ooh, I can just get it in under the wire.
Sally: Would you like to have dinner with me some time?
Harry: Are we becoming friends now?
Sally: Well ... yeah.
Harry: Great! A woman friend ... You know you may be the first attractive woman I have not wanted to sleep with in my entire life.
Sally: That's wonderful Harry.
This is Harry's third revision on his "men and women can't be friends" premise. At this point, the Ephrons want us to believe that he's evolving ... but he's still treating Sally like an object and marveling over the fact that he doesn't want to fuck her. A friend who is attractive that you don't want to fuck? Revolutionary! He's practically a feminist. Even this improved version of Harry can't cool it with the philosophical musings on male and female differences. Can you imagine how excited he must have been when "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" hit the shelves?
As Harry and Sally become legitimate friends, the movie improves slightly. They have some really nice days together and just when I start to think that I don't hate watching them interact, Harry says something dumb and it all crumbles. When I see the split screen of them watching "Casablanca," I think, "Oh, that's nice." A few second later, I immediately change my mind because Harry starts blathering on about how "there are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance." This guy loves picking out minor traits and using them to define a woman's entire existence. It's barely tolerable, let alone charming.
Sally typically finds Harry's diatribes annoying. Remember all those times she rebuffed him with disgust in the past? But she's single now, and sad, so I guess her standards have lowered. Aside from a few offensive observations and the routine male misogyny, Harry is a decent friend. I personally would never be his friend, but I can see why someone might. It isn't until Sally calls him crying, distraught to hear that Joe has gotten engaged, that my irritation with him reaches a fever pitch. Harry rushes over to her house and comforts her ... with his dick.
Immediately, Harry realizes that he made a mistake and he doesn't know how to handle it. Sally seems satisfied, smiling, and lying on Harry's bare chest. Her facial expression says, "That was fun," and his says, "Get me out of here immediately." He stays the night, but leaves awkwardly the next morning. Since Sally isn't a moron, she picks up on this change in attitude immediately and calls Marie (Carrie Fisher) for advice. She thought things went well, but it's clear to her that Harry doesn't share her feelings.
While Marie talks Sally down from her side of the bed, Jess listens to Harry on his. (It's not clear why Jess and Marie have two separate phone lines, but whatever.) Harry tells Jess, "The doing part was good. But then I felt suffocated." HOW DID YOU FAIL TO ANTICIPATE THIS? If this is a feeling that you experience often, maybe wait until you've discussed things with your friend before recklessly sticking your dick in her when she's sad.
Later at dinner, both parties admit that sex was a mistake. Sally obviously only says this because she can tell that Harry wasn't into it. I wish she had been honest with him, but understand why she concealed her feelings. After not talking for a few weeks, the pair reunites at Jess and Marie's wedding. While screaming at each other in the kitchen, Harry says something truly unforgivable:
"Fine, but let's just get one thing straight. I did not go over there that night to make love to you, that is not why I went there. But you looked up at me with these big weepy eyes, "Don't go home tonight Harry, hold me a little longer Harry." What was I supposed to do?"
When Sally slaps him, it feels 100% deserved. It's almost like Harry is trying to say that Sally is the one who pushed the relationship toward sex, so she shouldn't be shocked by the aftermath. Not even Idris Elba is attractive enough to act this way and get away with it, so I don't understand why Harry thinks it will work for him. Instead of apologizing, the two stand in silence while Jess gives a toast in their honor.
Harry knows he fucked up, and spends the rest of the movie trying to win Sally back. He leaves desperate messages on her machine, sometimes even with the aid of a microphone (why). He wants to take her to a New Year's Eve party, but Sally declines. We all know how the movie ends. She goes to the party with some other dude while Harry walks around the city, sad and lonely. She's getting ready to leave when he thinks back on all of their happy times spent together and decides to run to the party and declare his love for her. His speech is vomit-inducing, but she loves it. As "Auld Lang Syne" plays in the background, they kiss, and the audience just knows that they will live happily ever after.
Harry's speech is a prelude to all of the character traits that will surely tear their impending marriage apart. Harry loves that she takes an hour and a half to order a sandwich? A likely story. No one loves that shit! It's annoying. We're supposed to be happy that these two end up together, but the movie gives us zero reason to feel that way. Their single sexual encounter was disastrous and in general, they have the chemistry of Donald Trump and Melania. Harry seems annoyed by everything Sally does, and vice versa. They don't communicate well, especially when it comes to honestly expressing emotions. Yes, they're friends and they have fun when the stakes are low, but they don't act like a team. I'm down to see these two continue hanging out and lowkey razzing each other, but I don't want them to get married. What the fuck?
At the end of the film, in their own little married couple segment, Harry and Sally don't even discuss the joys of their relationship; instead, they ramble on about the coconut cake at their wedding. When the cake at your wedding is the high point of your relationship, you know you made a mistake.
If there was a sequel to this movie, we would probably find out that after years of rampant miscommunication and 'meh' sex, Sally has decided to file for divorce. Her spin instructor actually makes her feel wanted and rocks a pair of spandex better than Harry ever could. Or no! Even more likely is that 2 years into their marriage, Harry bludgeons her to death 45 minutes into one of her batshit crazy restaurant orders. He gets life in prison for first degree murder and spends the rest of his days angrily screaming Sally's name into the void. These two should have never ended up together. This romcom is trash.