Picks and Pans Review: When Harry Met Sally...

updated 07/24/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1989 01:00AM

Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan

The level of insight and sensitivity of this comedy is such that it includes not only one joke about children starving in Ethiopia but another one based on John Kennedy's being murdered. These, mind you, are jokes told to get laughs, not make a point about how inhuman and lacking in compassion people can be. Such hurtful lapses in taste would neutralize even a witty, intelligent film, and neither of those adjectives applies to this movie.

Directed with less than his usual charm by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally...betrays an adolescent obsession with dating and romance (sex seems to be regarded as something to discuss and brag about but never do). Crystal and Ryan meet cute—as college students sharing a ride from Chicago to New York—and spend the rest of the movie, which covers 15 years or so, breaking up cute and meeting cute all over again. Theirs is a platonic relationship obviously leading to a more entangling alliance. Nothing else really happens.

Carrie Fisher and Bruno (Good Morning, Vietnam) Kirby, as Crystal's and Ryan's best friends, show up from time to time; they too are obsessed with dating and romance. These are four grownups who all have jobs as lawyers or writers. You would think they would have a bit of dimension to their lives, but all they worry about is where their next rejection is coming from. And their childishness is clear when one couple goes to bed together for the first time and the other pair exclaims, "They did it! They did it!"

Woody Allen ought to get a credit for most of what variation there is. The heavy references to Casablanca—with clips from that 1942 film—recall Allen's infinitely superior Play It Again, Sam. And the interjection of brief documentary-style comments from elderly couples describing their romantic history seems a variation on the device Allen used in Take the Money and Run and Zelig. (It also seems a cheat that the couples are unrelated; their little tales are so banal they ought to have truth going for them at least.)

There are some funny moments. One comes in a restaurant when Ryan shows Crystal how women fake orgasms. This naturally attracts the attention of the other diners, and when a waiter approaches a woman at a nearby table who has been eavesdropping, she nods toward Ryan and says, "I'll have what she's having." (Freudians will note that the woman is played by Reiner's mother, Estelle.)

Ephron's women-centered jokes are more effective than those about men. Her notion of how men behave is epitomized by a scene in which Crystal and Kirby discuss their sexual conquests, like high school sophomores in a locker room. That they do this while taking their swings in adjacent cages at a batting range suggests Ephron knows as little about baseball as she does about the way men behave.

By the end, when everyone should be rooting for Crystal and Ryan to get together, the whole enterprise has long since soured. You don't really care what they do—get married, break up, join the Foreign Legion and a nunnery—as long as they don't change their minds again and keep the movie going. (R)

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