The film opens with simple, white-on-black titles, backed by an elegant, evocative jazz standard. The story that follows, framed by documentary-style straight-to-camera interviews, concerns a witty, urbane Jewish neurotic and his relationship with a sunny, fashionable shiksa. They stroll in through an autumnal Central Park and discuss death, sexual hang-ups, and New York real estate; the borough of Manhattan is captured in loving beauty shots, often backed by the music of Louie Armstrong. From that description, it would be easy to assume I was describing any number of Woody Allen films (Annie Hall in particular). But no, I’m talking about director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally.
So why did Harry/Sally do so much better at the box office than any of Woody's movies? Bring in the happy ending.
Yet the key to When Harry Met Sally’s initial financial success and subsequent cultural ubiquity most likely lies in its third act, when it takes some turns decidedly its own. To be clear, it’s not all an Allen carbon copy; the famous Katz’s Deli sequence, for example, is a funny scene, but it’s also a “funny scene,” an entirely unbelievable set piece with a (hilarious, mind you) sitcom punchline that one can’t imagine within Allen’s more grounded world. But most strikingly, once Harry and Sally take the plunge and their relationship becomes more serious, it becomes more of a conventional romance — and more of what we would come to define as an Ephron movie.
Most importantly, the picture culminates with an apologetic Harry coming to his senses, sprinting through New York City on New Year’s Eve, and delivering a big, heartfelt speech so he can win back Sally, who he really loves after all. This happy ending is When Harry Met Sally’s chief divergence from the Allen playbook. It’s not just that his best-known comic romances, Annie Hall and Manhattan, end with their focal couples apart rather than together; in Allen’s nearly 50 films as writer/director, only six (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Oedipus Wrecks, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Melinda and Melinda) feature a couple that meets, falls in love, and lives happily ever after.
Allen’s jaded view of love — all broken relationships and heedless infidelity — may be the more realistic one, but realism don’t sell tickets, kids.
Happily ever after is where the money's at.