The soundtrack uses song standards that comment on love. The movie opens with an up-tempo version of “It Had to be You,” which at this point could be ironic, meaning the main characters are not made for each other, or it could point to fate, that some people are destined to be together. It is 1977 at the University of Chicago following graduation, and Harry Burns, (Billy Crystal), is making out with his girlfriend, Amanda (Michelle Nicastro). Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), Amanda’s friend, pulls up in her car as she and Harry are going to share a ride to New York City together. Sally is very organized, a real control freak. She has the whole route marked out and how they will share driving. Even her eating patterns are rigid, as she refuses a snack offered by Harry because she won’t eat in between meals. Harry grabs some grapes and spits out the seeds but the window isn’t open. So, he’s a bit of a slob, the exact opposite of his car companion. He asks her to tell him the story of her life, and then spits, which undermines interest in his query. It’s more like he’s just trying to kill time. She says her life is just beginning, and is going to NYC to attend journalism school. He comments, sarcastically and with no tact, that’s so she can write about what happens to other people. Harry’s take on things initially is usually depressing. He asks Sally suppose nothing happens to her, and maybe she dies “a New York City death,” and it takes a while for people to smell her corpse and realize she’s gone. She was warned by Amanda that Harry had a dark side. He scoffs at Sally saying that she thinks about death only briefly as she happily goes through life. He sees her as eternally optimistic (Her last name is “Albright.” He, on the other hand, has the last name of “Burns” which is a volatile name, implying he is angry and not satisfied with the human condition). He reads the last page of a book first because he might die in the middle of the story. That, he says, is someone "with a dark side." He says he’s better prepared for bad stuff because he spends a lot of time thinking about death. But, she says that the price of that preparedness means he’ll ruin his life worrying about his demise. They argue at the extreme opposite ends of the scale.
Writer Ephron said there were two kinds of romantic comedies. One was Christian, where the impediments to the two people getting together were external. The other type was Jewish, where the blocking obstacles are the neuroses of the male. That type is the Woody Allen film, and this movie definitely fits into that category, although at least through a large part of the film Sally has her problems, too. As they drive to NYC, Harry and Sally argue about Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa in Casablanca leaving Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, and going with Paul Henreid’s Victor. She says Bergman gets on the plane because women are very logical and would rather be with a hero than a bar owner with no prospects or nobility (she makes this statement while she sprays her hair to keep it in place, emphasizing her drive for control). He argues that it’s better not to be in a passionless marriage but rather be with the guy she had the best sex in her life with. He says that she obviously has not had great sex - which is the preoccupation of the male. Later in the story, Harry comments that Ingrid Bergman is “low maintenance,” because she does not insist on so many requirements to carry out her way of life. Harry says Sally is high maintenance, but thinks she’s low maintenance. In the first time that they go into a restaurant on their road trip, Sally makes her order extremely complicated, while Harry, in contrast, orders “the Number 3.” In the later scene he says that “on the side” is very big with Sally, always altering what is on the menu. She says, “I want it like the way I want it,” Which for Harry is the very definition of high maintenance.
Harry does recognize her on the plane when she orders a drink in a complex manner. After arranging to sit next to Sally, Harry can’t even remember Amanda’s name (although Sally can’t either, at first with Joe, and then uses it against Harry - to make the man feel guilty about his more cavalier attitude toward romance). Harry also forgot Sally’s career goal of being a journalist, and he even has to ask if they had sex. Because they are not in a relationship they can admit to male-female feelings that lovers would be wary of talking about so as not to offend the other partner. Harry knows that she and Joe have been going together for only a month because one goes to the airport at the beginning of a relationship, and then the zeal to please the other person peters out. But, he surprises Sally by telling her he is getting married. This development is so optimistic of him, showing Harry embracing life. He says falling madly in love will do that, but then he qualifies his romantic enthusiasm by saying men get tired of the whole dating ritual (which should not be the real reason one gets married). He also talks about how all men after sex want to get out of the place where they have had relations. They don’t want to cuddle, and they make up excuses to leave. He asks her if she likes to be held after sex, and then says that is her problem with men, since, as a typical woman, she doesn’t understand how men feel about intimacy. After disembarking the plane, Harry asks her if she wants to have dinner, just as friends. She reminds him of what he said about men and women not being friends. He first denies he said such a thing, but then admits that is what he still believes. But, there is an exception if both parties are in relationships, then they can be friends. Then he admits that’s not true, because then one of the partners will ask what is missing in the relationship that the other needs to seek out from another. And, there will be an accusation that the partner is secretly attracted to the other person, which is probably true. So, Harry concludes, as he did before, that men and women can’t be friends. They say goodbye again.
Another five years elapse. Sally is with friends, including Marie (Carrie Fisher). Marie found a receipt showing a guy, who she is having an affair with, and his wife, bought furniture. It’s repeated several times that the married men Marie is involved with will never leave their wives. When Sally says to her over and over the men will never get divorced for her, Marie says “You’re right, You’re right. I know you’re right.” Marie is an example of another truth that although intellectually some women know that they will not get commitments from married men, they delude themselves into thinking these fellows will leave their homes for them. Sally, at first silent, admits that she and Joe broke up. Marie asks immediately if Joe is available? There is no time for sympathy, making it look like the dating life can be cutthroat. Sally says that she’s okay, she and Joe were growing apart, she’s had a few days to get used to it, and she’s fine. She reassures herself that she is still too young for the clock to start ticking (a reference to having time to have a child). Sally first says she is in a mourning period, and is not ready to hear about possible dates. But, Marie has a file box containing information about men, which she carries with her, showing her underlying preoccupation with not wanting to be single. She comically folds down the end of a card on one man's entry when she finds out he is married. (The other friend says as a couple you have someone to do things with, and will have a date on national holidays. There is a desperate feel here shared by women who are not with a man. So, there is no celebrating the individual woman being free from men, which is a theme in other films which stress the empowerment of women). Marie says to Sally not to wait too long because there might be the right man out there and then she will have to live with the fact that another woman is married to her husband. Her statement stresses this feeling that there is a soul mate out there for every woman, which again lends itself to the female notion of a fairy-tale romance even in a modern world.
We then have a switch showing Harry’s relationship problems in a sad/funny scene that explains Harry’s anger and suspicion about the success of long term relationships. Whereas the women meet at a restaurant, Harry and his writer friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby), are at a male bonding event, a football game. Harry tells Jess that his wife, Helen (Harley Jane Kozak) told him that she doesn’t think she can be married anymore, like it’s the institution she has a problem with. After a day to think about it, she told him that they can try a trial separation and maybe could still go out on dates. But, as he told Sally, he wanted to get married so as not to date, and dating your own wife seems like moving backwards in the relationship. She then harshly told Harry that maybe she never loved him. Helen then said she can sublet another apartment, so she’s obviously thought about going away longer than she has let on. Which is confirmed when movers then showed up at their door. Helen said she didn’t want to ruin his recent birthday so she held off telling him about how she felt, somehow thinking being deceptive was taking the higher road. One of the movers has a T-shirt that says “Don’t f... with Mister Zero.” Harry sadly admits that this guy with the funny name knew about the end of his marriage before he did. The real pain comes from the fact that it’s really a lie, because Helen is now in love with a tax attorney and moved in with him. Harry reverts to his pessimism, saying that he knew that it was only a matter of time before she would “kick the shit” out of him.
After these parallel separate scenes, Harry and Sally again “meet,” this time at a bookstore. Marie is there and sees Harry in the “Personal Growth” section staring at Sally. Is this an ironic section for him to be in, implying he needs to grow emotionally? Or, is it a hint as to how he will be growing, especially at this point after getting battered by a woman as a sort of punishment for his irresponsible use of women for personal satisfaction all those years? Marie mirrors the main characters’ cynicism about relationships following their break ups, saying after five years, Harry may not be married anymore. In a country with a high divorce rate, one can see how the dream for enduring romantic love bumps up hard against reality.
We have Harry and Sally talking on the phone, but director Reiner keeps the narrative grounded in the cinematic by showing images of Harry, still reading the last pages of books, sitting in his sparsely furnished apartment (probably to stress his feelings of loss), and flipping cards into a hat so as to keep his mind off of Helen. He tells Sally he has been watching “Leave it to Beaver” reruns in Spanish at night because he can’t sleep, another example of mixing the funny and the sad. They are on the phones while watching the end of Casablanca in their separate apartments (which mimics how Crystal and Reiner would talk to each other while separately viewing the same film). Sally now says she never would have said Ilsa should go with Victor, showing how she is now more open to not being pragmatic as a buffer to life’s messiness. Reiner uses the split screen technique to show their simultaneous reactions to the movie, (appropriately a love story), and to each other’s words. She says she has been going to bed early, and Harry says that’s due to depression, which she refuses to admit she feels. Sandwiched in between their conversation is a montage, showing how they have been spending time together. Harry looks bored as she goes through one of her extended restaurant orderings, and later jams all of her letters at once into the mailbox, instead of waiting for her to double check that each one has slid down the chute. We see him with a thermometer in his mouth and he says he might be coming down with a 24 hour tumor - a definite Woody Allen line. Casablanca ends and Harry says the movie has the best last line ever in a film. He then says he will moan himself to sleep, which he begins to do, which is funny and pathetic at the same time.
In another scene, they share their sexual dreams, which reveal their personality traits. In a passage that could come right out of a Woody Allen script, Harry says he is making love and Olympic judges are watching (emphasizing the male preoccupation with sports and competition). But there is guilt, because his mother is watching him having sex, and she is an East German judge. She gives him only a 5.6, which Harry attributes to his dismount (a great line combining sex and sports, and the story fits in with Ephron’s Jewish romance category). Sally says her sex dream involves having a faceless man rip off her clothes, and the only thing that varies is what she is wearing. Even in her romantic fantasies, Sally is repressed.
We then have the famous deli scene. Sally, in female judgmental mode, wants to know how Harry runs out on these women, as he said on the airplane all men want to do, after he has used them for sex. He says that he tells them lies, such as he has to leave for a squash game, which he doesn’t play, but which they don’t know is not true because they just met him. Sally labels Harry an “affront to all women.” He says the women are having a good time, so it’s not a one-sided benefit. She brings up the possibility that some of the women he had sex with may have faked having orgasms. (Another one of Ephron’s secrets she wanted revealed). He says he knows they aren’t faking with him, which points to the ignorance inherent in the self-inflated male ego. She says that most women do it, even if men say never with them, so “do the math.” To drive home her point, Sally pretends, convincingly, to fake a climax, moaning, and saying “Oh God,” “Oh right there,” “Yes, Yes, Yes!” and banging the table, running her hands through her hair to the astonished reactions of the customers. At the end, Reiner’s mother gets the line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (It was Ryan who suggested the fake orgasm scene, and Reiner had to act it out following Ryan’s restrained first take. But, the famous last line of the scene was provided by Crystal, which Reiner gave to his mom).
The story moves on to the Christmas holidays in NYC, with Macy’s windows decorated and the large tree erected in Rockefeller Center. How close and yet still separate they are is seen in a shot of Harry helping Sally bring home a Christmas tree to her place, but again, it is still just her place. We quickly shift to a New Year’s Eve party. Sally tells Harry thanks for being with her on this night, and he says that if they are not with anyone next year, she has a date. It’s comforting, in a strange way, because they are not intimately involved, but they are still there for each other. He no longer has his beard, and she says they can dance cheek - to - cheek now. This physical connection is also symbolic of how they are becoming closer emotionally. Their faces show that they are feeling more than friendship as they dance, and they are a bit surprised, and a little scared by it. The music fits the scene as we hear Harry Connick singing about how lovers are made from friends. They go out to get some air to cool off their arousal as the countdown to the new year (a new beginning?) occurs. Everyone kisses, they hesitate, not knowing what to do, but they smile, and play it safe with a little kiss and a hug.
One evening, Sally, in tears, calls Harry, telling him Joe is getting married, and needs Harry to come over for support. Ryan is great in this scene, her face and voice really revealing her character. She always looked like she was okay with the break up, but her control freak exterior crumbles now when she finds out Joe is marrying somebody who he just met. She says “Kimberly” was supposed to be his “transitional person,” not “the One.” She wanted him to be going through the same slow moving forward, the same anguish she went through at the end of their romance. Her hair is frizzy, and she is throwing facial tissues all over, which shows her orderliness firewall is failing. The scene is also comical as she angrily interrupts her narration by saying “I need a tissue,” or says Kimberly is a “paralegal” with a sneer, as if the woman isn’t good enough for an ex of hers. Harry asks if she would take Joe back right now? She, sobbing, says “nooo,” as if that’s a given, but she is upset by asking why didn’t he love her enough, as if she is unlovable. It is a jolt to her self-esteem, because she concludes that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to get married, he just didn’t want to marry her. She puts herself down with abrupt, guttural dismissals of herself - “I’m difficult. I’m too structured and completely closed off,” But he says comically, “But in a good way.” She complains she’s getting older - “I’m going to be forty.” But, he points out her exaggerated reaction by noting that won’t be for eight years. He makes her laugh when she says men can have kids when they are older, like Charlie Chaplin, and he says yeah, but he can’t pick them up. She abruptly reverts to crying, not allowing herself to feel better. They hold each other, but then kiss, as she finds solace in his arms, and he wants to comfort her. They then make love.
Afterwards, she looks happy, and he looks stunned, like a deer in the headlights, probably thinking he may have made a big mistake, because after his marriage broke up, he doesn’t trust being in a relationship. With Sally, he can’t just have a sexual release and escape because he has developed a friendship with her. There is a shot, as Sally goes for some water, of Harry with one leg out of the bed, resting on the floor, like he’s ready to dash out. He sees a box which contains alphabetized entries of her movies on cards. Sally’s super-organized ways point out to him how different they are. She asks if he is ready to go to sleep, hoping he is up for more lovemaking, but he says okay, and she gets her first dose of a letdown. He doesn’t leave, but he gets up before her in the morning. He says they have to get ready for work, but he would like to have dinner with her. It sounds artificial, distant, like an obligation, and he gives her an anemic peck on the forehead as a departing kiss.
We have a fun split-screen scene as Harry and Sally call Jess and Marie separately at the same time retelling what happened. They say the sex was good, but Sally says it went cold after that, and Harry says he felt suffocated. They actually seem to be telling one long narrative as the sentences seem sequential although four people are talking. Jess reassures Marie that she “will never have to be out there again,” after what happened to Harry and Sally reminds her of the anguish of dating.
Internal monologues occur as Harry and Sally say they must tell the other their lovemaking was a mistake. At dinner, Sally looks disappointed when she says it first and Harry so quickly agrees. She is doing it to lessen the embarrassment of being rejected, and he is doing it to escape emotional intimacy. Afterwards, Harry tells Jess that it was too late in their relationship to have sex, since they already told each other their stories, and then didn’t know what to do after sex. He seems to be reciting from the male game plan, which urges having sex before getting to even know the person. Marie is getting fitted for her wedding dress, which accentuates Sally’s sadness, although she is glad for Marie, the hope for a happy romantic ending still seeming to be possible. What makes the wedding ceremony awkward is that Harry is the best man and Sally is the maid of honor. Afterwards, Harry says to Sally the holidays are rough, and she says there are a lot of suicides, almost like she could empathize. Sally is angry, and Harry says why can’t they get past it, since it’s been three weeks since they made love. For him it’s been a sufficient amount of time. He says why does it have to mean having sex was everything, and she responds, as most women who prize intimacy would, by saying, “Because it does.” And, if it wasn’t important, he wouldn’t have wanted to run away from it so quickly. He then makes the mistake of acting like he gave her pity sex. She slaps him for that one. At the reception, Jess says that they want to thank Harry and Sally, because if either he or Marie would have found them at all attractive, the two of them wouldn’t have gotten together. What a tribute!
It’s the Christmas holidays again, and we hear Bing Crosby singing “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” The song contains the ironic line, given Sally’s situation, about troubles being “out of sight,” as Sally must now drag her tree to her place alone, occasionally falling down in the process. Harry keeps leaving apologetic phone messages, saying he will do the traditional season’s “groveling” if Sally lets him. He says to Jess he’s tired of making a “schmuck” out of himself with his constant apologies, but then he continues to do so, leaving a song message accompanied by the karaoke machine. When she does answer, he says that he’s sorry, but doesn’t elaborate. He then says that if she doesn’t have a date for the New Year’s Eve party, they said they would be each other’s dates. She says, “I can’t be your consolation prize anymore.” She is now showing that she has gained self-respect, and won’t allow herself to be demeaned.
On New Year’s Eve, Harry is in his place, saying to himself that he’s great, eating Mallomars, watching Dick Clark. She is having a lousy time at the party. At the end of romantic comedies, one character has to run to the other to consummate the happy ending (See: Sleepless in Seattle; Love, Actually; Serendipity; The Family Man, etc.). Harry walks around, trying to say it’s great to catch up on window shopping, get some fresh air. But, he wanders by where they first arrived in New York. We have a montage of the images and words that represent his memories with Sally. Then we get Frank Sinatra singing a more romantic version of, “It Had to be You.” Harry talked about Casablanca having the best last line ever in a movie. Harry runs to the party to deliver, for my money, one of the best last speeches ever. He tells Sally that he loves her, but she just chalks it up to him being lonely on New Year’s Eve. He then says, “I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And 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.” They kiss, and Auld Lang Syne begins to play. Harry says he doesn’t get the song, but Sally, appropriately, says it’s about old friends.
The final scene, also improvised, has the two of them joining the procession of other couples who sat on the couch. They talk about the three times they met, and how they were friends, then weren’t, and then fell in love. They say they had a great wedding ceremony, with a cake with the chocolate sauce on the side, which Harry was okay with. Being able to accept and find endearing those things that may drive you nuts. Now that’s love.
The next film is Dial M for Murder.