When I was 16, I walked by my old friend’s house on New Year’s Eve. Other stops on my walk were the church I grew up in and the forest trail where I used to walk my dog. I was feeling particularly wistful and a little depressed. I liked watching older movies like “10 Things I Hate About You” and “13 Going on 30” to feel better. Rom-coms filmed after about 2015 are cursed by streaming services’ high turnover rate. They don’t have the same heart as the older ones.
“When Harry Met Sally” is the quintessential romantic comedy. I’m pretty sure I heard the, “I’ll have what she’s having!” joke long before I understood its context. I never thought it would be a movie that would make me cry, but seeing Billy Crystal (“Monsters, Inc.”) run through the streets of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve to catch up to Meg Ryan (“You’ve Got Mail”) always gets me. They just don’t make rom-coms like they used to.
I’ve talked about this before, but a really overlooked part of the rom-com is the narrative downswing: the sad, tear-jerking parts when the protagonist fights with her best friend or loses her job. You can’t have comedy without tragedy. “When Harry Met Sally” is hysterically funny, no doubt about it. It’s hilarious (and evocative of the ’80s career woman) that Sally’s sexual fantasy doesn’t even involve sex. But that same vignette is also tender.
Sally doesn’t want sex; she wants someone to rip her clothes off. The man in her dreams is “faceless.” All she wants is someone to look at her, without the masks or the wallpaper. She just wants to be seen. There’s an unfinished vulnerability in her dream, as her friendship with Harry for most of the film. They talk about their lives for 18 hours when they first meet, then they don’t even see each other again for five years. How heartbreaking is it to know someone so deeply but not feel like you can call them your friend?
The happy ending is where the film reminds you that it’s a romantic comedy. Still, it’s not frivolous. It’s New Year’s Eve, and Harry made it to the party and told Sally he loved her, but she either doesn’t believe him or doesn’t care. They’re pushing through the crowd — one chasing, one retreating — and the countdown goes to zero. There’s cheering and kissing all around them, but they’re so angry with each other for their missed love.
Eventually, Sally stops running. There’s confetti covering the shoulder pads all around them. Harry says, “It’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
He didn’t say that he wasn’t lonely, because he was. But he feels his love for her more than he feels his loneliness.
There’s an Alexi Murdoch song called “Through the Dark,” where he writes, “I love you, girl, I love you more than I can say / Even with my heart in the way.” His broken heart won’t stop him from loving her. Love isn’t always as much of a feeling as it is an act. It’s a late-night call, an argument about Casablanca, a cheek-to-cheek dance, the feeling of a cable-knit sweater.
It’s “Auld Lang Syne.” Harry wonders aloud what that song even means: “Should old acquaintance be forgot?’ Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances? Or does it mean that if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot ’em?”
And Sally says, “Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them, or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.”
I think that’s what’s missing from the perishable, replicable, forgettable romantic comedies we see getting churned out now. Yes, “The Kissing Booth” and “Someone Great” do have an understanding of narrative arcs. There is some point when the protagonist gets down on their luck only to be lifted up again, but there’s no weight to any of it. It doesn’t seem to mean anything.
This isn’t to say all rom-coms that came out after 2000 are hollow: “Palm Springs” and “Love, Rosie” are a couple of lighthearted-ish movies that actually stick with you past the time that you close your web browser. I think they achieve that by leaning into the weight in their characters’ lives. Not every rom-com has to deal with the inevitability of death or the futility of life, but it has to mean something. If it doesn’t mean anything, we have no reason to remember it.
And I guess that’s what I’m getting at with “When Harry Met Sally.” Love is about remembering who we’ve forgotten. I don’t know if I nailed it by watching rom-coms or walking by an old friend’s house, but what matters, to me, is that I remember them.
Daily Arts Writer Mary Elizabeth Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.