This is another fine delivery from the pen of Madame Ephron. “When Harry Met Sally…” as overtly promised in the title, is the depiction of what was a long-winded courtship between one Harry Burns and a Sally Albright. The period lasts for about twelve years and is now considered to be a classic member of the Will-They-Won’t-They club. But of course, like most members of this club, they most certainly do.
The plot consists of three distinct periods spaced apart in time, where the characters have had time to grow independently of each other.
The first bit is where they both bond over a road trip from Chicago to New York. Along the way, we see them discuss a few topics including the relatability of the characters in “Casablanca”, dating histories, what constitutes “good” sexual intercourse and other things. We also witness Harry expound his fundamental rule of sex: “Two people of the opposite sex cannot exist in a purely platonic relationship”. Sally vehemently disagrees and they both continue bickering about the specifics as they reach the end of their journey. Sally also exhibits disappointment that as a result of the rule, she’s lost her only friend in New York. We see them part ways and the plot skips a full five years into the future.
The second bit happens in an airplane, where both of them are traveling to Chicago and interact while on the flight. Through the dialogue we discover that Sally is now dating another man named “Joe”, while Harry is due to be married to a “Helen” in a months time. Harry is relieved given the situation, as he can now freely engage in a platonic friendship with Sally given that both of them are now romantically engaged with other people. He also briefly considers amending his rule where “a man and a woman cannot just be friends”, “except when they are already in committed relationships with other people”. However, he quickly abandons this addition after further analysis of its repercussions of jealousy by the peripheral partners. They again part ways after their aircraft lands, never to see each other for another five years.
The third phase takes the bulk of the screen time and happens about ten years after both of them have moved to New York. This time, the two characters happen to meet in a random bookstore. In contrast to their previous encounters, Harry is very subdued, while Sally is less uptight. Over coffee, we find that Harry’s wife is cheating on him and wants to get a divorce. Meanwhile Sally has decided to separate from her boyfriend because of them wanting different things. They both find solace in each other’s plight and this chance meeting causes their apparent friendship to take off in acknowledged violation of Harry’s rule. Both of them also decide to abstain from sex, concluding that the carnal congress complicates all relationships between friends. During this “friending”, they keep dating other people (and in the case of Harry, having sex with them too). We also see that Harry is particularly confused at how well Sally handles her breakup with her long-time boyfriend Joe. Especially compared to his own coping mechanism of gunning straight for the sex.
This goes on for a couple years, but both of them have no luck finding a comparable partner during this time. It is also evident that Harry has a much harder time keeping his cool after his divorce with his wife. The tables however, do turn when Sally finds out that her ex-boyfriend “Joe” is getting married. This causes her to get devastated and lose confidence in herself. She breaks down and phones Harry, who decides to come over in order to console her. This is the first time we see Sally properly emote her real worries, the lack of which was exactly what was throwing off Harry’s instincts. This rectifies the inconsistency in her situation and behaviour and confirms Harry’s mental model of her. Very predictably, this peak of emotional highs leads to them finally “doing the deed”.
We soon realize that they’re completely unprepared for this escalation in their relationship. Initially there is just an awkwardness and the declaration that it is a one-time thing. But as time passes, we see the cracks start to appear in their friendship. It reaches finality when attending a wedding of their mutual friends. Here, they fight bitterly until some words are said which cannot be taken back. This infuriates Sally and they stop talking to each other. Harry keeps pursuing her and calling her to meet her. Sally keeps ignoring him. Finally, on new year’s eve, he is unable to handle the loneliness and rushes over to ask her forgiveness. Parallel to this, Sally is also miserable and doesn’t want to find herself alone at midnight on New Year’s.
There is also the sub-plot of Jess and Marie who’re inadvertently brought together, when Harry and Sally try to setup each other on blind dates with their best friends. Its primary role is to serve as the setting for some of the final showdowns between the main characters. They’re also tasked with providing some of the light background that is needed to make the main characters feel realistic and social. But most importantly, they also embody the frustration that some people feel when they’re consistently unsuccessful in the dating world. The idea that there’s no one out there for you is unsettling to say the least.
The movie also features interspersed interviews of geriatric couples reminiscing their stories of courtship and marriage. These don’t seem to have any obvious metaphorical or literal connection to the plot. One can assume that it was effective filler content to drag the movie length into feature film territory. Note that even after adding all this, the movie still clocks in at a relatively short 96 minutes.
Anyway, the crux of the movie is the idea that “a man and a woman cannot be friends”. “Friends” here implies a “platonic” relationship i.e. one devoid of any sexual interest or activity. Harry also goes on to make the point that even in an apparent friendship between a male and a female, at least the male is deluding himself into thinking that their relationship is platonic. That, at some level, at least one party is expecting sex out of the relationship. As a result, any such “friendships” are doomed to failure. “Failure” here of course meaning either the “friendship” ending or transitioning into a carnal form. Our man Harry is of the opinion that the idea holds true in all circumstances, while Sally is more of the optimistic kind and believes that the proposition is false. The plot itself seems to be on Harry’s side. It shows their chemistry laden “friendship” for two years where they both are in denial about their compatibility. They’re also unable to find a similar “connection” with any of their other partners during this time.
As for me, I do not agree with Harry’s proposition. In fact, there is no falsifiability criteria specified. The simplest counter-example I can come up with is the case where two people who’re friends and are most definitely not in love can and have existed. As in most ill-defined propositions, the existence of such cases can be justified as the parties being delusional about their friendship and motives. So it is best not to take this one seriously.
However, if like most people, you enjoy watching conventionally attractive white people over reacting to mild inconveniences, this is the movie for you.