30 Years Later, ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is Still a Wonderful Delight

When Harry Met Sally movie poster

In today’s episode of “man, do I feel old,” we revisit “When Harry Met Sally” which has now reached its 30th anniversary. Yes, this romantic comedy is that old, but in many ways, it hasn’t aged a day. The life challenges its main characters face are no different from what men and women face today, and the only thing missing is an overabundance of cell phones.

“When Harry Met Sally” is an especially unusual love story in regards to how it starts and progresses throughout. We first meet Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright right after they graduate from college. They end up taking a long car ride from Chicago to New York where the real world awaits them whether they are ready for it or not, and from the outset they cannot stand each other to save their lives. Harry is convinced men and women can never be friends because, as he puts it, “the sex part always gets in the way.” Sally tries to rebuff Harry’s advances and sexist comments by attempting to be more open-minded, but this motivates Harry even more determined to prove his point. When they finally reach New York, they part ways and go their separate paths, thinking they will never see each other again. But we know this will not be the case.

Five years later, we catch up with Harry and Sally as they bump into each other on a flight going to Chicago for business purposes. Things have definitely changed for the two as Sally is involved in a serious relationship with a lawyer named Joe, and Harry is now engaged to be married. The relationship between these two has not changed much, and Sally is still turned off by Harry’s cavalier attitude towards the opposite sex, even when it seems like he really has found true love. They finally part ways at the airport, thinking they won’t bump into each other ever again…

This brings me to the point the movie’s screenwriter, Nora Ephron, made about these two characters; they keep meeting up with each other at the wrong times in their lives. The first time when they were on the road and leaving college was the wrong time, and bumping into each other at the airport was also the wrong time. But the third time, which comprises the bulk of the movie, is definitely the most wrong time at all. Sally has recently broken up with Joe and declares to all who listen that she is “over him,” and Harry is going through a painful breakup which he did not see coming. These two at this point have no business being in any relationship as they are in a mourning period, but this time a strong friendship blossoms between the two as they go from fighting to challenging each other to see if men and women can really remain friends even after the sex part gets in the way.

“When Harry Met Sally” was made back in Rob Reiner’s golden age in which he gave us such cinematic gems as “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me” and “The Sure Thing.” His direction here is flawless as he brings us right up close and into the two lives of people who couldn’t be more different from one another. Their progression throughout the movie is very believable and feels almost effortless thanks to the truly inspired performances of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and the screenplay by Nora Ephron is far and away one of her best. Even when it looks like the movie might get a little too broad for its own good, Reiner manages to keep everything together and mines the material for all the humor and heart it has to offer. He also populates the movies with short vignettes of absolutely true stories involving how people found love in the most unexpected ways, and I came out of it believing how love is possible even for those who foolishly believe they are unlovable.

Billy Crystal typically comes across as just Billy Crystal in many of the movies he stars in, but he can be a very good actor when he is given the right role. His performance as Harry starts off in a seemingly broad manner, but he goes from being a confident man in love to a man whose pride looks to be broken forever in a way which he conveys perfectly. The pain in his face when he sees his ex-wife with another man while he and Sally are doing karaoke at the Sharper Image store really hit me hard, and his acting is strong as he makes Harry’s anger raw to where anyone is a target for his upset feelings. This character remains one of Crystal’s best roles to date.

Meg Ryan became a star with this movie and rightly so. No one else could have played the role of Sally Albright better than her, and she is utterly lovable even when she gives the waiter instructions of how she wants her food which would make any food server go insane. You also have to give her almost all the credit for the diner scene, which became one of the all-time great comedy moments in film history as she was the one who came up with faking an orgasm. Ryan shows a lot of range in the movie as she takes Sally from being serious to giddy to heartbroken at a moment’s notice. Granted, this movie pretty much got her stuck in romantic comedies for a long period than she wanted, but that’s because we came to love her so much.

But let’s not forget the great supporting cast here who prove to be every bit as good. The late Carrie Fisher reminded us there was more to her than “Star Wars” and writing screenplays as she steals one scene after another as Sally’s best friend, Marie. Carrie’s character has a thing for married men which never seems to deter her from pursuing them. Then you have the late Bruno Kirby (he is still missed) who plays Harry’s best friend, Jess. When Jess and Marie get together, it is a comedy high point as they ditch their friends for a night alone. Things never do go as planned, do they?

What makes “When Harry Met Sally” so enjoyable is how examines the question of if men and women can truly be friends, and in the answers it comes up with. This is one of those romantic comedies which is meant for both men and women, and remains a gem in a genre I typically want nothing to do with. It broke through the perception we had of these kinds of movies at the time, and of how the audience for them was bigger than we bothered to realize. It also stands as a testament to how unrequited love can be requited and in a way which is absolutely believable. We should all be so lucky.

Thirty years after its release, “When Harry Met Sally” more than deserves its place as one of the best romantic comedies ever made. It’s still a great movie after all these years, and one that is impossible to forget. And by that, I don’t just mean the diner scene. Few romantic comedies these days can match its laughter and sincerity, and I’m not sure we see one like this again for a long time. Of course, filmmakers out there are more than welcome to prove me wrong.

* * * * out of * * * *

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No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Cujo’

Cujo movie poster

It took Cinematic Void putting together a Stephen King film festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to give me a reason to finally check out the cinematic adaptation of “Cujo.” It was a movie I have heard a lot about, and I remember the book’s original artwork with those growling teeth which indicated this particular dog was looking for more than puppy chow and snausages. Moreover, the word Cujo has long since been burned into my consciousness, and it seems to exist as a description of a dog who has gone mad and cannot be mistaken for man’s best friend. In “Fletch,” it made perfect sense when Chevy Chase said “Cujo” as he wandered through a seemingly abandoned house in Utah. Considering he was attacked by a Doberman Pinscher earlier in the film, his fear of being attacked again was completely understandable.

“Cujo” was released in 1983 during a decade when adaptations of King’s work were plentiful and varied in quality. While some were exceptional (“Stand by Me,” “The Shining,” and “The Dead Zone”), others like “Maximum Overdrive” just didn’t work. “Cujo,” however, proves to be an above average adaptation of his work as well as one of the more unusual. While many of his books deal with the supernatural, this one deals more with the horrors of real life instead of just monsters.

I’m sure you all know the story to “Cujo” by now. In case you don’t, it involves a beautiful St. Bernard who, at the movie’s start, chases a rabbit through the woods. In the process, he gets his head stuck in a cave filled with bats, one of which bites him on the nose. From there, he goes from being a lovable household pet to an infinitely vicious one as he attacks any and every human being in his sight.

From the outside, “Cujo” seems to have a very straightforward plot which indicates to the viewer it will be one of those animal attack movies we have seen time and time again. But what really surprised me most is how it focused more on the human element to where I realized the dog was really a supporting character more than anything else.

You have Vic and Donna Trenton (Daniel Hugh Kelly and Dee Wallace), a married couple and the proud parents of a highly imaginative boy named Tad (Danny Pintauro). But while they appear to be leading the perfect life in Castle Rock, Maine, there are cracks beneath the surface which will inevitably become visible to everyone. Vic is increasingly concerned with economic security, something even more understandable these days. Donna is having an affair with Steve Kemp (Christopher Stone), her ex-boyfriend from high school, as she is terrified of being trapped in a small town for the rest of her life. And Tad, he is still at an age where it’s far too easy to believe monsters are hiding in the closet and waiting to jump out at him. Seriously, seeing Tad race to his bed after turning off the light and hiding under the covers brings back a lot of memories.

Taking the fears of each character into account, it serves as a reminder of how brilliant King is at examining not just horrors of the unknown, but also the ones we are forced to experience in the real world. This makes “Cujo” especially effective as the obstacles these characters are forced to deal with feel almost as scary as the thought of this dog tearing their flesh apart.

“Cujo” was directed by Lewis Teague who also helmed the Stephen King anthology film “Cat’s Eye” as well as the cult classic “Alligator” and “The Jewel of the Nile.” Teague was lucky he got to make “Cujo” back in the 80’s, a decade where filmmakers had the opportunity to build up to a furious climax instead of being forced to rush straight to one. These days, studio executives would have begged, if not ordered, him to rush right into the sequences where the dog attacks the hapless humans and increase the blood and gore horror fans are expecting. Instead, Teague got to take his precious time introducing us to characters who are not mere stereotypes and whose struggles will soon pale in comparison to the dog whose appearance becomes increasingly dirty and slimy.

This movie’s major set piece comes when Donna and Tad become trapped in a Ford Pinto as Cujo thrashes away at it, trying to get inside. From there, “Cujo” becomes a major exercise in sheer intensity as we watch Donna do what she can to save herself and her son before the dog makes chop suey out of them both. But if the dog doesn’t get to them, the sweltering summer heat may do them in instead. Suffice to say, they cannot stay in the car forever.

It’s interesting King chose a St. Bernard as the type of dog instead of another like a Doberman Pinscher. Of course, casting a Doberman might have seemed like typecasting as they have always been the villains of dogs. St. Bernard dogs seem more like comic relief, and this was made clear back in the 1990’s with those “Beethoven” movies starring Charles Grodin. Therefore, choosing a St. Bernard as a dog is an inspired choice as it shows how easily a dog, any dog, can turn deadly after being bitten by a bat. When we first see Cujo, he is a beautifully groomed dog you just want to hug. But he soon becomes a dog in desperate need of a shower as he looks disgustingly slimy and has what looks like an abundance of snot sliding off his face. Eventually he becomes an evil force to be reckoned with, and it’s easy to understand how no one could have prepared for him.

But while this dog looks to be the main star of “Cujo,” he is not. The real star is instead Dee Wallace who, just as she did in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” gives us a mother who cannot be mistaken for the average movie mother. I love talking about when actors inhabit roles more than play them, and it is certainly the case with Wallace here as she gives a performance best described as emotionally blistering. She makes us feel Donna Trenton’s frantic struggles as well as her mental and physical exhaustion in dealing with a crumbling marriage, an affair, her son and, of course, the dog. Also, she makes us feel every single bead of sweat coming off of her body as she and Tad are trapped not just in the car, but in the sweltering summer heat as well.

There also moments where Donna loses her patience with Tad, and this makes Wallace’s performance feel all the more real. Just as “Cujo” was being released, some associated with its production were keen to cut a scene where Donna snaps at her son as she grows tired of his crying out for daddy. This, however, would have been mistake as all parents lose their patience with their children. Seriously, just as my mom. I’m sure she has tons of stories she would love to share with you.

While I’m at it, let’s not leave out Danny Pintauro whose performance as Tad feels unbearably real at times. Seeing him weep and panic when the dog tries to get at him and his mother makes an already intense motion picture even more intense.

Teague and his collaborators which include composer Charles Bernstein, director of photography Jan De Bont, and editor Neil Travis clearly had more on their mind than giving us the average horror film with “Cujo.” While there is a conventional feel to much of what we see here, the filmmakers were more invested in the human element than the animal one. Lord only knows how this movie would look if it were made today, and I’m stunned it has not been remade yet. As this cinematic adaptation shows, horror movies can’t thrive unless we are emotionally invested in the characters to where they are not just stock or filler. This film may not be a masterpiece, but it proved to be far more effective than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * ½ out of * * * *