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Harry Burns and Sally Albright first meet when they ride from college to New York City. He's seeing her friend Amanda and comes on to her; she turns him down and says they can be friends. He points out that if you're a guy, you will always be attracted to the female friend and want to sleep with her, thus they decide not to be friends. They revisit the question five years later when they are both taken and run into each other in an airport, once again resolving that no, they cannot.
Five years later, both of them re-meet after having been dumped by their SO's, and become friends. While resolving to just be friends...well for most of the movie they succeed in this. Their relationship has little sexual tension, and is punctuated by extended conversations where they discuss love, friendship, scatological humor, and Casablanca. The Aesop seems to be that people really need friendships- the nonsexual comfort zone Harry and Sally establish with each other is what allows them to move on from their failed relationships. To each other, in case you haven't figured that out yet.
In terms of the Romantic Comedy genre, this movie's main contribution was its popularization of Contemplate Our Navels as a form of Character Development and emotional connection- Harry and Sally are defined almost entirely by their interactions with each other. What external factors do exist they usually discuss with each other directly and personally.
Viewers familiar with the modern Rom Com may be caught off-guard, as this movie lacks the High Concept and Hotter and Sexier tropes the genre is famous for. There's almost no sex or even provocative clothing. There's vastly more scenes of people in bed, alone, wearing pajamas and talking on the phone than getting their sex on. The "R" rating was likely due to the famed restaurant scene.
Billy Crystal and Rob Reiner recently appeared in a spoof trailer on FunnyOrDie.com for When Harry Met Sally 2, where Executive Meddling has turned a continuation of the original film into a shameless cashing in on the vampire craze.
- Alliterative Name: Harry's ex, Helen Hillson.
- Analogy Backfire: Harry articulating why enough time has passed that he can ignore having sex with Sally that one time. Also a hint that he's sliding back into his old, insufferable self.
Harry: You know how a year to a person is like seven years to a dog?
- Arc Words: "Men and women can never be friends."
- Armor-Piercing Slap: Sally cracks her hand on Harry's face at Jess and Marie's wedding. Ooph.
- Backhanded Apology: A famous one delivered by Harry at the end.
- Backhanded Compliment: Lampshaded by Sally when Harry compliments her on being less "uptight" than she used to be.
Harry: Alright, you're still as tough as nails.
- Bad Date: Harry and Sally spend a good deal of time talking about these. Mostly played for comedy, but can get dramatic, too.
- Bad News in a Good Way: Helen suggesting a 'trial separation'. They can still date! ("Like this is supposed to cushion the blow.")
- Beard of Sorrow: Harry has had a few week's growth by the time of his divorce.
- Big Applesauce
- Blind Date
- Briar Patching: Harry is the undisputed master.
- Brick Joke: In the 70s, Harry scoffs at the notion that Sally could ever have "great sex" with a guy name Sheldon. Guess who his wife leaves him for? Ira.
- California Doubling: They drive off the University of Chicago campus on the south side to New York.... via a picturesque segment of Lake Shore Drive headed toward the south side [Did they have to visit a friend at Northwestern, Depaul or Loyola first?]
- Catch Phrase: You're right. You're right. I know you're right."
- Chekhov's Gun: Harry's hypothesis on why men and women can't be platonic.
- Child-Hater: Harry getting into a spat with a kid at the ballfield.
Kid: (Big jerk.)
- Danger Takes a Backseat: Played for Laughs on the plane, when Sally fails to escape Harry's facial recognition.
- Duck Season! Rabbit Season!: Arguments with Harry usually devolve into this.
- Everyone Can See It: Most notably mentioned in the post-sex phone call scene.
- Fate Drives Us Together
- Faux Documentary: The interviews with elderly married couples that are sprinkled throughout the movie. The stories were based on real-life couples, but portrayed by actors.
- Finishing Each Other's Sentences: Couple #3 engage in this.
- Follow the Leader: When Harry Met Sally shares more than a few similarities with Annie Hall and Manhattan.
- Foreshadowing: Helen opting to keep her surname.
- Also, Harry's confession that his dates always end with him desperate to yank on his clothes and flee out the door.
- For Inconvenience Press One: Harry parodies this in one of his apologetic voicemails.
- Freak-Out: Harry has a meltdown after bumping into his ex and her new boyfriend at The Sharper Image. Sally seems to be showing more maturity than he — that is, until she hears about Joe's engagement.
- The Freelance Shame Squad: "It just so happens that I have had plenty of good sex!" [cricket chirp]
- The Ghost: Mr. Zero.
- Gilligan Cut: "If she wants to call me, she'll call me. I'm through making a schmuck out of myself!" [cut to Harry singing karaoke to Sally over the phone]
- Girl of the Week: The other people Harry and Sally briefly date (Julian, "Aunt" Emily in particular).
- Hair of Gold: Sally.
- Hello, Attorney!: Helen.
- I Don't Want to Ruin Our Friendship: Ironically, it proves Harry's point that sex ruins friendships. Not that Harry feels very victorious about it.
- The Immodest Orgasm: Sally fakes one in the middle of a crowded deli to prove a point to Harry.
- Some consider this all there is to know about When Harry Met Sally.
- Inelegant Blubbering: Sally hearing the news of her ex's wedding engagement.
- Insistent Terminology: The official title of the film is When Harry Met Sally..., including the ellipsis.
- It Got Worse: Harry recounting the events leading up to Helen dumping him.
- Kavorka Man: Harry must be a walking petri dish of venereal disease by this point (Sally lampshades).
- Lost Love Montage: Harry flashes back to his times with Sally on New Year's Eve. The montage is so powerful, it drives him to sprint across the city to reunite with her.
- Love Epiphany / Race For Your Love: Harry's sprinting through the streets on New Year's Eve.
- Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: Played with, but mostly played straight.
- The Matchmaker: Jess and Marie.
- May-December Romance: Harry's rebound girlfriend. Lampshaded, characteristically, by Harry himself.
- Modesty Bedsheet: Sally and Harry sport the classic "L"-shaped bedsheet.
- Nice Hat: Battery-operated pith helmet. With fan!
Sally: You know, I'm so glad I never got involved with you. I just would have ended up being some woman you had to get up out of bed and leave at 3:00 in the morning and go clean your andirons...
- Opposites Attract: Sally is perpetually perky, Harry is death-obsessed.
- Oral Fixation Fixation: Harry and his grape seeds. [*ptooey*]
- Precision F-Strike: It's truly startling when Sally drops an F-bomb.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The movie was based on Director Rob Reiner's own dating experiences and frustrations (he was recovering from a divorce just as Harry was), and as he was single at the time, originally Harry would not get with Sally at the end. The decision of the happier ending where they get together apparently was a result of Reiner meeting and eventually marrying a woman during the film's production.
- Real Men Hate Affection: Harry confides to Jess about his divorce in the least-intimate setting possible: a football game.
- Recurring Riff: "It Had To Be You" pops up all over the place-- it's practically the theme song for Harry and Sally's relationship.
- Second Love
- Seinfeldian Conversation: Arguing over whether Ingrid Bergman should have stayed with Bogart in Casablanca.
- At the very end, Harry questions the message of "Auld Lang Syne".
- Serious Business: Jess gets very competitive when playing Charades.
- Seventies Hair: Sally is sporting Farrah Hair in college.
- Sex Changes Everything
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man
- Slap Slap Kiss: ..And back to Slap, again.
- Split-Screen Phone Call
- Stepford Smiler: Throughout the film, Sally claims to be totally over her commitment-phobic boyfriend. That is, until he promptly proposes to somebody else. Cue explosion.
- Stunned Silence: After their first meal together, Harry stares at Sally like she's from Mars.
- There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: High-maintenance women, and low maintenance women.
Sally: ...And Ingrid Bergman is low maintenance?
- Thousand-Yard Stare: Post-coitus Harry in Sally's bed.
- Toilet Seat Divorce: The wagon wheel coffee table. From Hell.
- Unsatisfiable Customer: Sally is the Berlin Wall of gourmets. Everything needs to be separate.
Harry: "On the side" is a very big thing with you.
- Wedding Day: Marie and Jess's, where Harry and Sally have a post-sex fight.
- Why Can't I Hate You?: Sally's response to Harry's Love Confession at the end.
- Your Approval Fills Me with Shame: Harry's a bit too quick in agreeing with Sally that it was a mistake to have sex with her.
- Your Cheating Heart: Marie has a long-term affair with the married Arthur. Sally continually reminds her that Arthur is never going to leave his wife; Marie always admits to it, but a few scenes later, she's discussing him yet again...