When Harry Met Sally, written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner, is generally acknowledged as one of the greats of the rom-com form. But a close look by filmmaker Michael Tucker of Lessons From The Screenplay shows that the 1989 romantic comedy is actually groundbreaking as well.
According to Tucker, When Harry Met Sally succeeds by turning around standard rom-com standards. For example, in many such movies, the intended couple can’t stand each other at first, then fall in love over the course of the film as they spend more time together (as in It Happened One Night, among others). In WHMS, the couple doesn’t get along when they first meet, and then separates for five years. Then they don’t get along again, and leave for five more years. When they finally meet again, instead of falling in love, they become friends. This, Tucker opines, allows us to compare and contrast different versions of the characters from different time periods, while also breaking from the traditional rom-com standard.
Also, as Ephron points out in an interview in the video, most romantic comedies have some sort of outside obstacle: like the careers of the characters in Trainwreck or the battling bookstores in Ephron’s own You’ve Got Mail. Harry and Sally have no obstacle to their romance except for their fears after their own respective breakups: The only people who get in their way to their romance are themselves. To highlight how stilted Harry and Sally are, Ephron offers Jess and Marie, their best friends, who fall in love almost instantly upon meeting, instead of taking years to do so.
The slowness of Harry and Sally’s relationship pace allows for one of the elements that makes the film so beloved: The characters’ ongoing dialogue, Since not much else happens in the movie, most of the dialogue involves peeling back layer upon layer of their characters, until the two wind up with the happily-ever-after ending of most romantic comedies. Tucker points out that the film stresses how friendship is the ideal basis for romance: an excellent message for Valentine’s week.