[originally published in 7 Days, on July 19, 1989]
Archie Bunker may have called him “Meathead” during his seasons as Mike Stivic on All in the Family, 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 This Is Spinal Tap (1984)—and went on to enhance every other in which he worked. The Sure Thing (1985) was that rarity, a gotta-get-laid teen comedy with genuine feelings and values. Stand By Me (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 The Princess Bride (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.