The one that broke the seal for her was the Rob Reiner-directed When Harry Met Sally

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The one that broke the seal for her was the Rob Reiner-directed When Harry Met Sally

Then, proving Harry’s maxim that casual companionship among the genders cannot exist “because the sex part gets in the way,” a night of indiscretion turns them back into strangers

by Bill Chambers Meg Ryan, the Princess of Perk, gets a makeshift career retrospective this month with the DVD releases of three high-profile gigs: When Harry Met Sally. , Prelude to a Kiss, and The Doors. I’m forsaking any further mention of The Doors to focus on the first two–delightful, whimsical films, unlike The Doors–and Ryan’s romantic-comedy stranglehold. Call it the curse of the button nose: the actress, who is more talented than anyone, myself included, is willing to admit, seems out of her element by a country mile in pictures that don’t require her to meet cute and kvetch over the subsequent courtship. And now that she’s pushing 40, Ryan is becoming to chick flicks what Stallone and Schwarzenegger were to actioners after Clinton got elected: we’re sick to death of seeing her in these Nora Ephron-type movies–yet, as Proof of Life, um, proved, we also don’t want to see her in anything but.

At least by the time they’ve run out of jokes, Crystal and Ryan have taken on the nominally gritty outline of real people in love

, which, like Die Hard before it, had so many repercussions on its genre that it now gives off the weird vibe of self-imitation. The story was original enough at the time: fate repeatedly unites opposites Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Ryan) until they become the best of friends.

The film came out of discussions Reiner was having with screenwriter Nora Ephron about the core differences between men and women; this is a Woody Allen comedy minus the singular observational stance. Or, more precisely, that includes a woman’s perspective. As much as I enjoy Allen’s Annie Hall, it’s not for one second about Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall, whereas When Harry Met Sally. entitles its heroine to a point-of-view and doesn’t over-intellectualize the hero’s eventual (and typically male) transgressions against her. The only drawback to this is a serious third act nearly as puzzling as The Graduate’s, with Harry’s actions really requiring us to have once done the same in order to comprehend them.

I really admire Ryan’s consistently punching above her weight class in When Harry Met Sally. : Crystal’s rat-tat-tat Catskills showcase is only funny–hell, only tolerable–because it’s feeding off her fearless comic energy. Reiner dabbles in split-screen here and I’ve always considered that metaphorically apropos: the movie divides our attention down the middle throughout, and it’s hard to imagine that being the case with Crystal playing off the romantic equivalent of a straight man. “I’ll have what she’s having” isn’t just one of the great punchlines, it’s the movie’s whole approach to equal-opportunity laughs.

Ryan’s chops have only sharpened in the three years between When Harry Met Sally. and Prelude to a Kiss, which has some fun with her image–although she was a replacement for Mary-Louise Parker app incontri barba, who originated the role onstage. Ryan’s bartender Rita is a borderline-alcoholic insomniac on the verge of conquering one of her many phobias by settling down with Peter (Baldwin, looking an awful lot like Rocky Horror-era Barry Bostwick (it’s the specs)). On their wedding day, drunken Rita plants a kiss on an elderly party crasher (Sidney Walker) who is hastily ushered off the premises. But there was some kind of magic in the air, and–spoiler alert–Rita has indeed switched bodies with the old man. For all intents and purposes, Peter winds up honeymooning with someone he’s never met in a sly sequence that manages to comment on both marriage and Ryan’s screen persona. The youth and femininity of his new body invigorate the old man’s spirit, but this Rita also resembles the Ryan we know and occasionally adore: zany, fussy, and largely asexual. Eventually, Peter tracks down the alter ego of his true bride. As they devise a plan to restore order to their lives, he discovers that love transcends the vessel (although this is inevitably not a film with all the courage of its convictions); the dual identities Ryan has built up are so strong by this point that we feel her presence emanating from the likeable Walker, who probably should’ve been remembered at Oscar time. Unfortunately, the picture flopped. When that kind of thing happens, it always seems maddening that they shied away from the homoeroticism: there was truly nothing to lose.

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