Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) spend the entire film in will-they-or-won’t-they mode, while Marie and Jess quickly decide: We will.
It’s a delight to watch Harry and Sally debate the nature of friendship and yak in silly voices about how there’s too much pepper on their paprikash. But it can also be maddening at times. Why can’t they see that they’re great for each other? Why does it take so long?
Marie and Jess, on the other hand, recognize their connection right away and seize on it. Perhaps partly because they don’t want to become Harry and Sally.
Let’s revisit that horrible double date where Sally is set up with Jess and Marie with Harry. The boredom is palpable — up until that moment when Marie accidentally quotes Jess’s writing back to him.
“I think restaurants have become too important,” Jess says.
“Oh, I agree,” Marie responds. “Restaurants are to people in the ’80s what theater was to people in the ’60s. I read that in a magazine.”
“I wrote that,” Jess admits.
“Get out of here,” Marie says.
“I did — I wrote that.”
“I don’t think I’ve quoted anything from a magazine in my life. That’s amazing. Don’t you think that’s amazing? And you wrote it?”
After Marie goes on about how articulate Jess is, he recognizes the rarity of what’s just happened: “Nobody has ever quoted me back to me before.”
This sort of coincidence is a writer’s first-date fantasy. It says: Not only has this person read my work, but it spoke to them and stuck with them. If Sally’s “I’ll have what she’s having” diner scene depicts what it sounds like when two people figure each other out physically, this moment shows what happens when you hit an intellectual G-spot. Marie and Jess aren’t going to let that kind of connection go unrealized.
Once Marie and Jess confirm with their friends that there will be no hard feelings if they swap dates, the two jump into a cab with each other. The decisiveness with which Jess and Marie speed away, leaving Harry and Sally stranded in their own stasis, is quite stark.
Could Marie and Jess have been as decisive with each other if they hadn’t had front-row seats for their friends’ waffling? Probably not. The connection that Marie and Jess seize on immediately isn’t all that different from the one Harry and Sally have had all along. Either couple might not have made that leap if they didn’t have the other around. Harry and Sally show Marie and Jess what a good connection can look like, and Marie and Jess set an example of what couplehood can look like.
As Marie so astutely puts in that epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table: “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.” Despite Jess’s poor taste in living room decor, Marie and Jess have good enough taste to identify each other as a good match.
They also knew all along that Harry and Sally belong together, a point that’s finally vocalized in that morning-after phone call. Harry and Sally regret sleeping together, while Jess and Marie tell their friends to get together already! It’s the first time we really see the secondary couple voicing their opinions about their best friends. “You should’ve done it in the first place,” Marie says to a distraught Sally. “You belong together.”
But Harry and Sally won’t do anything because they’re told it’s a good idea! They have to figure it out on their own, just as Marie and Jess did. This rom-com could’ve ended much differently. As Jess says at his wedding: “If either of us had found [Harry or Sally] remotely attractive, we would not be here today.”
The role of the rom-com sidekick is to help your best friend find love. Rarely do the sidekicks get their own happy endings, too.
Harry and Sally likely wouldn’t have made it without Marie and Jess. Not because the couple pushed them together, but simply because they set an example that love can work out, that it can be worth risking a friendship. Without their friends, Harry and Sally might have remained forever in the musing and meandering stage, never giving it a real shot.