Whenever I tell people I don’t like “When Harry Met Sally” I am always met with the exact same reaction: incredulity. People have a hard time understanding how I don’t like a film that is regarded as one of the best comedies of all time — perfect material for the Hot Takes B-Side.
It’s not that I particularly dislike romantic comedies, either. I grew up watching every classic rom-com that a person could name. Whenever I go home for winter break, my dad and I rewatch more ’90s rom-com classics than most think possible. But the one film we never watch anymore is “When Harry Met Sally.”
The film follows Harry (Billy Crystal, “The Princess Bride”) and Sally (Meg Ryan, “Sleepless in Seattle”) as they run into each other over multiple chance encounters in New York City after initially meeting during a cross-country drive from Chicago. They initially become good friends, discussing their personal lives intimately with each other. Over time, they find themselves attracted to each other and attempt to set up each other with their friends Marie (Carrie Fisher, “Star Wars: A New Hope”) and Jess (Bruno Kirby, “Donnie Brasco”), which backfires and leaves both of them alone. Eventually, they pronounce their love for each other at a New Year’s Eve party, and the movie ends with an interview of Harry and Sally, now married.
Rewatching the film after not having seen it for many years did make me realize that my initial dislike of the movie was a bit strong. I found myself laughing at more of the jokes, appreciating the idealized aesthetic of New York City in the fall and winter and obsessing over Ryan’s outstanding acting skills. I started to see what made everyone else fall in love with this movie. After watching the scene in which Ryan hilariously fakes an orgasm, I thought I might not be able to write this piece anymore. I thought that maybe I did like the film now. However, I kept watching and remembered why I dislike the movie.
The fundamental issue I have with the film is that I cannot sympathize with the character of Harry. Crystal’s acting is too reserved and not vulnerable enough for me to be convinced that Harry is more than just lonely and desperate for a relationship. At the end of the film, Harry is met with this same critique from Sally: He does not actually love her and is just lonely. His response is to start listing things about her that he loves. Although this scene is apparently widely loved by fans, it has always fallen flat for me since the audience doesn’t see Harry noticing any of these little habits earlier in the movie. The first hour of screen time convinces me that Harry is incapable of truly loving someone else, and then expects me to believe he is actually in love with Sally. The only time we see Harry make an apparent attempt to pay attention to Sally is when he is jokingly making fun of her. This makes the movie funny, but ultimately, it completely ruins the romantic aspect of the film.
The film returns to the same question on multiple occasions: Can heterosexual men and women just be friends? Harry states his belief that they cannot be friends without sex becoming a factor early on in the movie. Although he is criticized for stating his belief in an oafish fashion, the film ultimately agrees with him. Harry and Sally could not just be friends no matter how hard they tried, and the movie ends with them getting together. The film wants to deal with the big question of how relationships are viewed in modern society in a nuanced fashion. But the script shows a reluctance to admit the film’s stance. It wants to be a story about how Harry is a flawed character who finds love, but then repeatedly follows plot points that prove Harry isn’t a flawed character and that his life’s philosophy contains much truth. We are meant to laugh at Harry’s pessimistic view on life, but we are also meant to eventually agree with that view.
I wish that I could enjoy the film as much as everyone else. The way this movie makes everyone else feel joy genuinely sounds great, but I also cannot force myself to like the film. I wish I had Sally’s acting chops, but I’m just not that good at faking.
Daily Arts Writer Zach Loveall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.