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'When Harry Met Sally...' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 12, 1989

"When Harry Met Sally . . ." is a sweet, embraceable comedy, a moonstruck Manhattan romance that, like a Gershwin tune, turns the sighs and glances, the spats and reconciliations, all the cliches of the heart into infectious melody. It's a movie that walks on air.

Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan match wits in this breezy skirmish in the war between the sexes, proving that opposites attract with the spunk of Tracy and Hepburn. Directed by Rob Reiner from Nora Ephron's screenplay, "When Harry Met Sally . . ." is a genial update of that genre. It's an arch '40s screwball comedy set in Woody Allen's neurotic metropolis, where you can still faintly hear the echoes of Fred Astaire's tap shoes.

When Harry (Crystal) meets Sally (Ryan), they have just graduated from the University of Chicago and are sharing a drive to New York -- she to become a journalist, and he, a political consultant. The pushy sexist and the cockeyed feminist fight all night long over everything from her day-of-the-week panties to the plot of "Casablanca." He thinks Bergman should have stayed with Bogart, Sally believes she was wise to leave and probably become the first lady of Czechoslovakia. It's a clear-cut case of "potato-potatah," a love-at-first-sighting that neither acknowledges for the next 11 or so years.

Reiner claims Harry as an extension of his ego, but he's not bragging. Harry is an abrasive pain who believes men and women cannot sustain a friendship because sex ruins everything. A cross between Don Juan and "Annie Hall's" acerbic Alvy Singer, Harry is driven by angst and bewildered by the women who "meow" in his bed. He believes in the worst, always reading the last page of a book first for fear of dying before he gets to the end.

Sally, a persnickety, controlling sort, thinks he is the most obnoxious man she's ever met, every time she meets him over the years. Then one day the planets realign, they bump into each other at a bookstore and go on to become best friends. Now veterans of heart-to-heart combat, they help each other get over lost loves (her beau and his wife, Helen) gabbing on the phone like high school girlfriends.

Their dates -- too gauche, too stuffy, too young -- can't match the joys of their incomparable friendship. Harry confides to another friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby), "When I asked Emily where she was when Kennedy was shot, she said, 'Ted Kennedy was shot?' " Ta-dum follows ta-dum for Harry and Sally -- she's often the appreciative straight woman -- have a million of them.

Ryan is summer's Melanie Griffith -- a honey-haired blonde who finally finds a showcase for her sheer exuberance. Neither naif nor vamp, she's a woman from a pen of a woman, not some Cinderella of a "Working Girl." She's feisty and eccentric and more than holds her own against Crystal's irascible, charming, George Burns nouveau. The excellent supporting cast includes Kirby and Carrie Fisher as the best friends of Harry and Sally who were, likewise, meant to be.

Falling in love with lovers is the meat of "When Harry Met Sally," a movie with a cupidity for couples, including a group of golden oldsters whose documentary-style recollections set off the story's new chapters. ("At that moment I knew, just like you know about a good melon," said one woman of meeting her Mr. Right.) In the hands of Reiner, Hollywood's most realistic romantic, they're rocking-chair sonnets of old love made young.

If Harry is Reiner's alter ego, Sally is another Ephron heroine who gets "Heartburn," but how much more easily she finds the Maalox this time. Her anger assuaged in that caustic outpouring, Ephron is free to be funny again. With her sharp eye for domestic details, and Reiner's comfortable camera, they simply sweep you off your feet.

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