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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Film Review: When Harry Met Sally (1989), Exploring Chick Flicks and Genre Conventions

 "I'll have what she's having."
Starring: Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby
Written By: Nora Ephron
Directed By: Rob Reiner
Release Date: July 21, 1989

Buy the film here.
Directed by Rob Reiner and written by the wonderfully talented, Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally is a film that has topped numerous "Best Chick Flicks for Men" lists for the last 28 years. But what makes this award-winning film a "chick-flick" rather than just your average romantic comedy? Or vice versa.
I want to start off by explaining that not all "chick flicks" are romantic comedies, just like not all romantic comedies are "chick flicks." Romantic comedies are just that: films that are comedic, yet also romantic in nature. Their plots revolve around some kind of romantic entanglement and are centered on romantic themes and ideologies, but they're still funny. "Chick flicks" are simply films that are geared towards women and although these genres have traditionally been categorized as one in the same, they aren't. Consider the way that films like Clueless and Mean Girls are categorized as "chick-flicks" and just comedies, even though they feature elements of romance. This is similar to the way that any Nicholas Sparks film is labeled a "chick-flick" and a drama because they aren't typically comedic and are instead, fully romantic in nature. Contrastingly, also consider the fact that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and (500) Days of Summer are just labeled romantic comedies and never really "chick flicks" because they're geared towards everyone. A majority similarity in relation to why these films are all labeled "chick-flicks" is not in their content at all, but in their intended audience, which is women. 
When Harry Met Sally features some, if not most, of the staple conventions that have categorized films as romantic comedies for ages. The basis for a romantic comedy involves the two leads meeting and then subsequently parting for some reason or another. Upon them parting from one another, it's traditionally established that the two believe they are not right for one another romantically, but both the filmmaker and the audience know that, secretly, they are. Eventually, they do meet again; however, there is usually some obstacle in the way of them being together, such as one or both of them being involved with someone else or other social pressures. In the end, one of them seeks out the other to put forth some sort of grand gesture or proposal of their love, and they come together to get married. This is essentially the plot of When Harry Met Sally. However, even though the film virtually subjects itself to following the stereotypical formula of a traditional romantic comedy, it subverts many of the various genre conventions it depicts by way of its dialogue and character development. And not only does it do that, but it also asks us questions about our own relationships and how we view society. Can men and women really be friends? Can a man compliment a woman without it being a come-on? Do most women fake their orgasms? Why does Ingrid Bergman really get on the plane at the end of Casablanca? While these questions and many more have plagued my mind since I saw the movie back in 2008, the more important question that remains is: Why doesn't it feel like other seemingly titled "chick flicks" are doing the same thing? 
Of course, there are always variations to any generic formula and many films have gone about flipping many of the stereotypical conventions of romantic comedies throughout the years. In (500) Days of Summer, our leads do not end up together. Instead, Summer leaves Tom and they both end up seemingly finding love elsewhere. In My Best Friend's Wedding, our lead female protagonist ends up alone and her love interest gets married to someone else. The reason that both films work so well is because they subvert our expectations about what's supposed to happen. Michael Tucker of Lessons from the Screenplay talks about genre in his video essay on When Harry Met Sally and from his reading of Robert McKey's Story, he concludes that: 
"The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this critical challenge: [He or she] must not only fulfill audience anticipations...but...must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them." 
"The challenge is to keep convention, but avoid cliche."
Meaning that the conventions themselves are not the issue. The issue lies in how they're presented. The winning aspect of When Harry Met Sally over other "chick flicks" similar to it is that while the film follows through with these repetitive conventions, they don't feel tired. The film is giving us everything we've seen before without straying away from its contrived plotline and it does this for a very specific reason. Not much happens in When Harry Met Sally and this is so that we're able to dissect characters and their relationships via what they say to one another. 
When Sally and Harry first meet, Harry has a long monologue about how he feels like he's a dark person because he reads the last page of every he encounters in case he dies before he can finish it. This directly ties to the deep depression he goes into when his wife cheats on him when they meet again five years later. As for Sally during her and Harry's first meeting, we ultimately find out that she's a generally happy person, unlike her male counterpart. Also unlike Harry, she takes her breakup with her significant other much better than he does and sees it as more of transitional period than a dramatic loss. Comparing their words with one another not only reflects the differences and similarities that occur in their future actions, but also in the differences and similarities between men and women in general. When Nora Ephron initially released the script, she also included an 11-page introduction with it. That introduction included the many conversations on love and relationships that Ephron had with the film's director. And it turns out that all of this is what's reflected in the film's dialogue. Every piece of dialogue seems to be working to showcase who these people are and how they fit in both our world, as well as the one that Reiner and Ephron have crafted based upon it. 
"Chick-flick" or not, When Harry Met Sally has a lot to say. It's a film that's caused quite a bit of debate on many different topics, most importantly including the question as to if men and women can be friends. While we may not have a lot of answers to these questions, it's more important to discuss these things and relate them to how differently men and women are in how they think about things and operate daily. Though this is quite mundane, especially since nothing really happens in the film, it's real without having to do much, which I can't say a lot about many other films of the genre. 

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