Attention, sequel sufferers: If you’re already bleary and reeling from too many hard-sell blockbusters, Rob Reiner offers welcome relief. Reiner’s fifth feature, following This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me and The Princess Bride (not a loser in the bunch), is a ravishing, romantic lark brimming over with style, intelligence and flashing wit. The movie begins with a man and a woman in a car, and the car doesn’t crash. That’s the first thing that wins you over.
Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron (Heartburn) start the plot whirling in 1977. Sally (Meg Ryan) is giving Harry (Billy Crystal), her girlfriend’s lover, a ride from Chicago to New York. He’s too pushy and vulgar for her; she’s too hoity-toity for him. Harry thinks a man and woman can’t be friends without sex becoming an issue. “Even when the woman is unattractive?” Sally asks. “You want to nail them, too,” says he. Harry and Sally may be a match made in hell, but watching them is movie heaven.
For the next eleven years, Harry, a political consultant, and Sally, a journalist, labor to stay in friendship and out of each other’s bed. In New York, rapturously shot by Barry Sonnenfeld (Big, Raising Arizona), they are the walking wounded, oblivious to the ardent atmosphere. Harry’s wife (Harley Kozak) has dumped him for a tax attorney; Sally’s fella (Steven Ford) is planning a wedding but not with Sally. Harry sets up his pal (Bruno Kirby) with Sally, and Sally pairs up her chum (a sly, sassy Carrie Fisher) with Harry. Disaster. Kirby and Fisher become lovers instead, having little patience with two people who can’t see the obvious: They were meant for each other.
Other things are also obvious. The plot, for example. You can see the ending coming for miles. You can also see that the film, with its simple opening credits, lush Manhattan setting, Jew-Gentile love match and jazzy soundtrack of standards from the Thirties and Forties (with Harry Connick Jr. warbling and tickling the ivories), begs comparison to Woody Allen. So what? Woody, now stuck in a turgid mode, has long since abandoned Annie Hall territory.
Reiner has picked up the ball and given it his own unique spin. From Crystal and Ryan he has drawn starmaking performances. Crystal, surprisingly tender, isn’t afraid to show the bruises on his brash character: In one scene with Ryan in a department store, Crystal launches into an impromptu song; he’s regained some of his former spirit. Then his exwife appears, and the sight of her reduces him to emotional rubble. In a few seconds, Crystal’s face takes measure of what gets lost in a marriage. This is his most heartfelt and hilarious screen work.
Meg Ryan may be too much of a beauty for the hapless Sally, a fussy horror in restaurants and a jumble of insecurities in love. Still, why nit-pick over such a thoroughly beguiling portrayal? Too long the best thing in bad movies (Promised Land, The Presidio), Ryan has finally found the vehicle that allows her talents full rein. Whether she’s being deflated by men (“Why didn’t he want to marry me?”) or doing the deflating (the scene in which she fakes an orgasm in a crowded deli deserves a prime spot in the comedy time capsule), Ryan is sweet, sexy and rip-roaringly funny.
From time to time, Reiner breaks up the story with documentary interviews with older couples who tell what brought them together. My favorite is the woman who explains that you know a great relationship like “you know a great melon.” A similar instinct applies to movies. You can tell When Harry Met Sally … is a winner by the way it leaves a smile on your face that lasts all the way home.