Saturday, April 12, 2014

50 Days 50 Films - #46 "When Harry Met Sally" (Nora Ephron)

Okay, before y'all cry foul, YES, I know that "When Harry Met Sally" was directed by Rob Reiner, not Nora Ephron.

But I'm doing a bit of a cheat here with my one-movie-per-director policy. I want to look at another Reiner movie later on this list and, in any case, Ephron is the one I want to talk about here.

Not to discount in any way Reiner's contribution to this film, but come on. We all know this is Nora Ephron's movie. She went on to have a long and illustrious career as a director herself ("Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," and "Julie & Julia," among others.) And this, of course, followed a long and illustrious career as a humor writer and essayist (if you haven't read either her 1970 collection "Wallflower at the Orgy" or her more recent collection "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," do yourself a favor).

"When Harry Met Sally" was Ephron in transition. It was not her first feature film screenplay — that would be 1983's "Silkwood," which she co-wrote — but it was the one that made Hollywood really sit up and take notice.

And for good reason. This is vintage Ephron. Her wit is always sharp without ever being vicious. There's an amiable warmth throughout that typifies her work, coupled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. She knows just how to undercut an emotionally difficult scene with a surprise laugh (Sally's slap, for instance), or how to underline a bit of humor with sudden and unexpected poignancy (the karaoke scene in the Brooks Brothers). This script is confident and self assured in a way that very few first-or-second screenplays are. Structurally, it's basically perfect.

Reiner serves Ephron well, mostly by getting out of the way. I don't know that you could ask for a more perfect match of sensibilities between a writer and director. And the cast just kills it all the way through. Meg Ryan has never been better, either before or since. Neither, frankly, has Billy Crystal -- who thankfully holds his shameless mugging down to an acceptable minimum here. Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher round everything out nicely. They consistently manage to steal every scene they're in without even trying.

"When Harry Met Sally" doesn't provoke a lot of belly laughs. To watch it is not to roll on the floor under a constant flood of hilarity. That's not what Ephron and crew were going for here. It's the type of movie you put on when it's raining outside and you want to curl up under a warm blanket with a cup of cocoa.

It's a gentle, quiet, sweetly acerbic film that feels utterly timeless. Because it is.

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