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When Aliki Met Rom-Coms...

by Aliki Bitsakakis

For most of my life, I have discarded rom coms. Maybe because there are so many rom coms out there, meaning, there are so many bad rom coms. When a genre is overpopulated like that, you’re bound to get some stinkers. A similar phenomenon can be found in the superhero genre. There are so many superhero movies, so many bad superhero movies, that it’s easy to assume the genre just isn’t for you. But, it just takes some work within all that noise to find the hidden gems. Similarly, rom coms take some work to sort through. And I for one, never had the time for such a task. But I recently found myself on a flight, and I decided to watch When Harry Met Sally…, because it was a classic title I have never taken the time to explore. This probably isn’t considered a hot take, because rather than reviewing a new rom com I chose one of the most renowned, but I loved it. I thought it was funny, endearing, and entertaining. And then it dawned on me that all these years, I thought I didn’t like rom coms. Turns out, I don’t like lazy movies that are trying to force themselves into a popular genre. This film got me because it wasn’t trying to be one thing or another, it was just a good, well-written story. 

Let’s start by figuring out what makes a movie a romantic comedy. We can look at the two words in the genre: romance and comedy. So the film has to center on a love story, and there have to be comedic elements. Easy. Theoretically, those should be the only prerequisites. But what are some other tropes that have now become commonplace within the genre? First thing’s first, there needs to be a meet-cute, a charming way that our two lovers meet. For example, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula meets her future husband Ian waiting on him in her family’s restaurant. A true meet-cute has an added element of coincidence, embarrassment, hilarity. In this film, Toula is taken aback by Ian’s good looks and she freezes up, calling herself his “own private Greek statue.” In true inciting incident fashion, one or both characters are ready for a life change. In Bridget Jones’ Diary, the film begins on New Year’s Eve (a very peril time of year) with Bridget vowing to change her life, and begin keeping a diary to track her progress. In The Proposal, Margaret is threatened with being deported back to Canada, sparking her idea to get married as soon as possible. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kat has no interest in dating but is forced to go out with the high school’s new bad boy to help out her sister. As you can see, many rom coms begin with women having some sort of crisis or repulsion towards dating that thrusts them into this love story. 
What else makes a romantic comedy? There are variations to how the love story goes, if we’re seeing a friends to lovers arc, enemies to lovers (the best romance trope), strangers to lovers, star-crossed lovers. The screenwriter has their pick of rom com tropes to throw in such as mistaken identity (You’ve Got Mail), a big secret or lie (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days), a love triangle (Bridget Jones’ Diary), the lovers being stuck together against their wills (Enchanted), a Shakespearean adaptation (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, West Side Story, She’s the Man most recently Anyone But You). Throughout the movie tropes such as the makeover, the falling-in-love montage, the cheating scandal, the love triangle, the big reveal of the lie/secret can be used at the screenwriter’s ease. As few or as many of these tropes make up the rom com. The ending is almost always the same: the lovers go through a lot and end up falling in love. They could be in love the whole time, be pretending to be in love until they actually fall in love, or find love along the way. That’s a rom com for you. And it needs to have a happy ending or we dip towards the romantic drama genre, which is a story that portrays tragic love, where the lovers do not end up together for some sort of dramatic reason, such as illness, death, alternate timelines not coinciding. The Notebook, La La Land, About Time, The Vow, I’m looking at you. So, comedy is a must. 

So, why did I like When Harry Met Sally over any other rom com I’ve seen (aside from 10 Things I Hate About You, that’s a perfect film that would make Shakespeare proud)? Firstly, it was realistic. I feel that the fear with rom coms is that they create unrealistic expectations for real life. (Shoutout to the rom coms that have pointed out the cliched nature of rom coms, such as Isn’t it Romantic?.) You watch too many rom coms as a teenager and suddenly you’re in your 20s, waiting to have that special meet-cute that turns your life upside down. In real life, people meet their significant others at school, at work, online, or through mutual friends, and that connection develops over time. It’s more beautiful than any rom com, just not as exciting. That’s because these are movies, and we cannot compare our lives to them. I found that the way Harry and Sally’s relationship developed made so much sense, and I easily related to it. We have the enemies to lovers trope here, as they meet while driving to New York, and they don’t like each other because Harry is very cynical and Sally has her head in the clouds. They then part ways and meet five years later on a flight, when they are both romantically involved with other people. They then meet again five years later, now both recovering from breakups and they form a friendship. They kiss at a party, they set up their friends, they sleep together and regret it, they try dating other people, and they finally get together for good. The ongoing coincidental meetings is pretty Hollywood, but I found the way their relationship actually developed to be very realistic. It wasn’t love at first sight, neither character felt as if an angel had been dropped right in front of them. The love developed as they got to know each other, saw each other at highs and lows, and they finally decided they couldn’t live without each other. This film felt very aware of rom com tropes, with the recurring motif of old couples describing to the camera how they met, the filmmakers clearly poking fun at these cliché love stories. However, these were actual stories gathered by director Rob Reiner, so I can’t say that these descriptions of meet-cutes were unrealistic. These little stories were just added in there to poke fun at love as a concept, and encourage the audience to view Harry and Sally’s story with a little more depth. The point is, falling in love is not a homogenous experience. At the end of the film, when Harry and Sally share their story in the same interview format, they blush at the complexity of their story. They cannot fit neatly into a box, and neither can (most) real love stories. 
Why else did I like this movie? The premise was simple and easy to follow. It feels like the more rom coms that are shoved into our culture, the harder it is to make your film stand out, so you need to set up a complicated, convoluted story. This isn’t true. Even if you’re working within a genre that has been done to death, you are the one writing the story. No one else in the world has had the same exact stream of thoughts and experiences and emotions that you have had. So there’s no need to overcomplicate, as long as you showcase your unique point of view. For example, Celine Song’s Past Lives surprised movie-goers as being one of the most poignant movies in last year’s Oscar race. And it was incredibly simple: Nora is happily married, and she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart from Korea. It would have been easy for this film to dip into the plethora of rom com tropes, and turn this story into a hostile love triangle. But Song didn’t do that. Why? Because this situation actually happened to her! And she wrote a screenplay based on her unique experience, which did not utilize the tropes that exist in movies. Many rom coms overcompensate for lack of true emotion. For example, I, for the life of me, could not wrap my head around the premise of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Andie is a journalist (like most rom com leads), and inspired by her friend’s breakup that she believes is her friend’s fault, not the guy’s, she writes a column under the name of the film, detailing how to get a man to break up with you. My question was…why? Too slow, the story’s moving on, and Andie has now met Ben and she is trying to get him to break up with her (to prove a point? To encourage women to be passive rather than break up with their boyfriends when they clearly want to?), but he’s trying to make her fall in love with him so he can win a bet that says he can make any woman fall in love with him. So, you have two characters, Andie who is trying to trick Ben into breaking up with her for no reason, and Ben who is trying to trick Andie into falling in love with him for a lukewarm reason. I couldn’t get behind the premise, which is why the rest of the film fell flat. And of course, they both fall in love with each other! When Harry Met Sally… is much simpler. The premise is, here are two characters, we’re going to follow them around and see what happens. That’s it. Incredibly easy to follow, and rather than trying to mentally work out the logistics of the plot, the audience can just sit back and enjoy the show.

This brings me to my next point: When Harry Met Sally… is often considered the best rom com of all time because its goal from the beginning was to tell a good story, rather than to fit into a genre. When we obsess about fitting into a genre, we forget things like putting together compelling scenes, fleshing out characters, filming each shot in a way that reflects the emotion of the story. I really enjoyed the dialogue of each scene. This may be a supporting point for my argument of realism, but I found every conversation to be very relatable, mirroring conversations I’ve had in my life. Harry and Sally talk about whether men and women can just be friends, they discuss Sally’s type-A method of ordering, they talk about breakups and movies and transitional relationships. I felt like I was a fly on the wall to a real relationship, which is why I connected so deeply, and why I actually cared about these two getting together. I felt like the movie wasn’t forcing me to care, it was just giving me a glimpse on the life of two real individuals, allowing me to decide how I felt about it. The performances from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan were obviously legendary, the backdrop of New York’s changing seasons gave the whole film a warm glow, and Sally’s fake orgasm was funny, unique, and still a scene Meg Ryan’s son Jack Quaid is asked about in interviews. Rob Reiner is a seasoned director, with Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, and A Few Good Men under his belt. Nora Ephron is the rom com mastermind, with Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia on her resume. This is all to say, when talented people come together, the product is something special. When a studio decides it’s been a while since they produced a rom com and they start assembling a team based on who’s popular at the moment, things will feel forced and inauthentic. 
When Harry Met Sally… came out in 1989 and it shaped the rom coms of the 90s and 2000s. The slow burn, the big declaration of love, the player falling in love with the perfectionist, are all tropes that can be traced back to this movie. Like any great film, its influence is still being felt. I’m 35 years late to the show but I feel that this film deepened my appreciation of the genre. I can’t say I’m a fan of the genre as a whole, as I’ve seen my share of eye-roll-inducing rom coms. However, now I know not to discard entire genres just because I’ve had a couple of sour viewings. Good movies are good movies, no matter what genre is attached to them. I highly recommend When Harry Met Sally… if you like rom coms and if you detest rom coms, because it’s just an entertaining film, perfect for a rainy afternoon or a long plane ride.
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