The critical reaction to Sally Field’s directing debut, Beautiful, was interesting. That film — admittedly a mess — presented a self-centered, vain, cutthroat main character, a beauty contestant played by Minnie Driver. The response to the movie showed virtually no recognition that such a character might be presented as a source of satire, or be set up for eventual redemption (which, of course, she was). Instead, critics and audiences alike seemed outraged that anyone would presume to place such a lowlife at the center of a film. (We have come a long way from the anti-heroes of the 1970s, folks.)
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
I saw You’ve Got Mail in a spanking-new multiplex located in a spanking-new downtown development, a place with an atrium and coffeeshop and Tiffany’s and J. Peterman. It’s the kind of gleaming, upscale mall that drove out (or will drive out) all the little shops and longtime dives that used to define the downtown of a city. It doesn’t really matter what city I’m talking about, because the downtown of my city could now be the downtown of AnyCity, blessed as it is with Planet Hollywood and Old Navy and a Starbucks on every corner.
The new development also has a Barnes & Noble at ground level. Well, gee, how ironic. You’ve Got Mail is about the owner of Barnes & Noble – er, “Fox Books” – opening a new megastore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is untroubled by the fact that his new store will drive the little booksellers out of business, including The Shop Around the Corner, a funky children’s book nook. It’s owned by Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who declares war on Fox and his heartless methods.
[originally published in 7 Days, on July 19, 1989]
Archie Bunker may have called him “Meathead” during his seasons as Mike Stivic on AllintheFamily, but since becoming a feature film director six years ago, Rob Reiner hasn’t made a wrong move. He began by creatively dismantling one genre—the “rockumentary,” in ThisIsSpinalTap (1984)—and went on to enhance every other in which he worked. TheSureThing (1985) was that rarity, a gotta-get-laid teen comedy with genuine feelings and values. StandByMe (1986) won sleeper status as a coming-of-age fable that had less to do with hyperactive hormones than with the nature and fragility of friendship and morality. Best of all was ThePrincessBride (1987), an exquisite fairy tale (by William Goldman) that succeeded in kidding the genre without betraying its tenderness, beauty, and charm.
There is every reason to expect that the director’s latest, When Harry Met Sally…, will become Reiner’s biggest hit to date. It’s the one laugh-out-loud comedy of the summer so far that won’t leave you feeling embarrassed afterward. It’s also, at the same time, a surefire date movie and just the sort of film some people will make a point of seeing solo or, better yet, with battle-scarred friends of the same gender. Yet for all its pleasures, When Harry Met Sally… suggests more clearly than any of its predecessors the limits of Reiner’s grasp, and perhaps of his reach as well.
In 1977, recent college grads Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet uncute and dislike each other. Five years later, they meet again and dislike each other more. Another half-decade goes by. So does Harry’s marriage and Sally’s longstanding relationship. When their paths cross for a third time, both belong to the walking wounded. Although they’ve discussed the improbability of a man and a woman sustaining a friendship without “the sex part” getting in the way, they begin to wonder whether they aren’t perfect candidates to become platonic pals.
They do. Indeed, they become so integral to each other’s lives that they try to fix each other up with their respective best friends (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby). The best friends prefer each other, and so, as any moviegoer worth the candle knows, do Harry and Sally. Harry and Sally don’t know it, of course. When, in a moment of mutual distraction, they impulsively become lovers, they go into postcoital shock.