One of the first things you see in When Harry Met Sally (1989) is the campus of the University of Chicago. This got me geeked. I tried twice, unsuccessfully, to get into this school for my graduate studies in history. It is not just the fact that it is located in the greatest city in the world, a scientifically proven fact, by the way. For whatever reason, the University of Chicago always spoke to me as the quintessential institution of higher learning. While at Loyola University Chicago, where I ultimately went, I would sometimes take the Red Line down to its confines on the South Side and walk among its august edifices. In the opening scene, you can see an area I would frequent. Off to the left, there is a chapel in which I would like to sit. It was not Catholic, but it was still beautiful in that Gothic fashion. Given the liberal bent of the majority of the student body, it was also empty every time I visited. Anyway, on with the rest of the review.
Our title characters in When Harry Met Sally, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), share a car ride to New York City upon graduating from the University of Chicago. They do not know each other, but have been introduced to one another through Harry’s girlfriend. Their road trip does not go well, with Harry assuming that Sally wants him despite him dating her friend. Hence, she is all too eager to go about the rest of her life after he drops her off in the city. Five years pass and they do not see each other until a chance encounter in an airport. Sally is being dropped off for a flight by her boyfriend, Joe (Steven Ford), and Harry is engaged to a new women named Helen Hillson (Harley Kozak). Much to Sally’s annoyance, they share a flight, and of course end up sitting next to each other. They depart once more after they land. Another five years go by, and this time we find Harry with a marriage that is ending, and Sally’s long-time relationship with Joe also broken off because she wanted a family. Because the timing in this film functions at neat intervals, they find each other again by chance, this time in a book store. What begins to soften relations between the two is the fact that their relationships with their significant others are coming to an end. Before they know it, they are having coffee with each other, taking long walks around the city, and staying up late into the night on the phone. The topic of the majority of their conversations is relationships, and on the surface they seem to confirm the misgivings they have about one another. This is what keeps them from attempting to date, despite the obvious signs of attraction as seen when they go to a New Year’s Eve party together. Instead, they attempt to set up the other with their respective best friends. For Harry, this is Jess (Bruno Kirby); and for Sally, this is Marie (Carrie Fisher). They probably did not make the best decision by trying to get to know their perspective partners by all four of them going on a double date. While at dinner, it becomes evident that neither Harry and Marie, or Jess and Sally, are right for each other. Instead, it is Jess and Marie that hit it off, and they end up leaving the evening together. So successful is their coupling that they end up getting engaged. It is not this event that sets off Sally, but rather learning that Joe has proposed to someone new that prompts a teary phone call to Harry. He decides to come to her place, and in the process of comforting her, they end up sleeping together. The next morning, things are awkward. Sally believes this could be the start of something new, but Harry does not want to see anything change between them. The cooling of the feelings between them spills over onto Jess and Marie’s wedding, when during the reception Harry and Sally have a major argument and their friendship seems to be over. When the time comes for the next New Year’s Eve, Harry is alone, but Sally has gone to the same party which they had attended the previous year. A lonely and restless Harry takes to the streets of New York, but everything he sees reminds him of Sally. After enough of these reminders, he decides to run to the party, and catches Sally as she is about to leave. Though she is still angry, his declaration of love wins her over, and three months later they are married.
Interspersed through When Harry Met Sally are interviews with older couples, though Harry and Sally are the final ones to talk. They contain stories of how they met and fell in love, each one following a different path. Some are love at first sight (always dangerous), and some, like Harry and Sally, take longer. There are others that fall somewhere along that spectrum. Without them, the movie would be a lot shorter. What seems to unite them all is that their relationships are based on friendship. On the other hand, Harry is adamant in the beginning that a man and a woman cannot be friends without sex being an issue. According to him, one will always want the other. I have mixed feelings on this notion. On the one hand, my experience tells me that men and woman can engage platonically, and this is something I regularly do. On the other, there is a reason the Church separates female and male religious orders. Monks and nuns (and priests, of course) take vows of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not because they lack a sex drive. This movie, and virtually everything Hollywood puts out for adult audiences, tells you that our lives basically revolve around sexual gratification. For those who forego this pleasure, it is done because they feel that there are more important things to be doing with their time, and the ministries they perform are those tasks. Those who get married in the Church (and this is an important distinction here) have the family they raise as their ministry. Either way, they are not making their identity based on how stimulated are their reproductive organs. If male and female religious lived and worked together, innocently or not, there would be that temptation to engage in the kinds of activities that take them away from that to which God has called them. For those of us who are unmarried and not involved with a religious order, think about how much of your life is devoted to something related to sex. I hope you know what I mean in this case. This mental exercise probably works best if you are not particularly dedicated to the Faith, and if so, maybe thinking about these matters will help put you on a better path? Now that you have thought about it, imagine how much more you could be accomplishing by using that time differently. I think this is a big reason why we sometimes think of monks and nuns as super human. Therefore, in a sense, Harry is right, men and women cannot be friends, but only in that narrow world view with which people of his ilk operate.
When I say people of Harry’s ilk, I mean basically all the main characters in When Harry Met Sally. It is because of this that might enjoyment of some of the film’s wittier moments is tempered. Sex puts a different shade on a relationship, and that is how God intends it. As such, if you can watch this movie with a different set of eyes, which is the goal of all these reviews, then there is some value in seeing it. Otherwise, it can be safely left in 1989, and I will go on dreaming about the University of Chicago.