<p>Woody Allen setup&mdash;<em>not! </em>Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal</p>

Woody Allen setup—not! Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal

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Archie Bunker may have called him "Meathead" during his seasons as Mike Stivic on All in the Family, but since becoming a feature film director six years ago, Rob Reiner hasn't made a wrong move. He began by creatively dismantling one genre—the "rockumentary," in This Is Spinal Tap (1984)—and went on to enhance every other in which he worked. The Sure Thing (1985) was that rarity, a gotta-get-laid teen comedy with genuine feelings and values. Stand By Me (1986) won sleeper status as a coming-of-age fable that had less to do with hyperactive hormones than with the nature and fragility of friendship and morality. Best of all was The Princess Bride (1987), an exquisite fairy tale (by William Goldman) that succeeded in kidding the genre without betraying its tenderness, beauty, and charm.

There is every reason to expect that the director's latest, When Harry Met Sally..., will become Reiner's biggest hit to date. It's the one laugh-out-loud comedy of the summer so far that won't leave you feeling embarrassed afterward. It's also, at the same time, a surefire date movie and just the sort of film some people will make a point of seeing solo or, better yet, with battle-scarred friends of the same gender. Yet for all its pleasures, When Harry Met Sally... suggests more clearly than any of its predecessors the limits of Reiner's grasp, and perhaps of his reach as well.

In 1977, recent college grads Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) meet uncute and dislike each other. Five years later, they meet again and dislike each other more. Another half-decade goes by. So does Harry's marriage and Sally's longstanding relationship. When their paths cross for a third time, both belong to the walking wounded. Although they've discussed the improbability of a man and a woman sustaining a friendship without "the sex part" getting in the way, they begin to wonder whether they aren't perfect candidates to become platonic pals.

They do. Indeed, they become so integral to each other's lives that they try to fix each other up with their respective best friends (Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby). The best friends prefer each other, and so, as any moviegoer worth the candle knows, do Harry and Sally. Harry and Sally don't know it, of course. When, in a moment of mutual distraction, they impulsively become lovers, they go into postcoital shock.

Rob Reiner has been moving toward making When Harry Met Sally... since the time of Spinal Tap. Mulling over his own then-recent divorce (from comedienne and director-to-be Penny Marshall), he started bouncing around the idea with his producing partner Andrew Scheinman and writer (and more celebrated divorcée) Nora Ephron. Ephron based her screenplay on material from the romantic histories of all three of them. This is an avowedly personal movie for Reiner, then. It's also the umpteen thousandth entry in the boy-meets-girl, boy-runs-from-girl, boy-accepts-destiny-of-ending-up-with-girl subgenre that has been around longer than the movies themselves.

Nevertheless, whether out of artistic hubris or an irresistible temptation to imitate, Reiner has left himself open to specific comparisons that invariably diminish his film. Premiere magazine speculated whether When Harry Met Sally... would establish Reiner as "the West Coast Woody Allen." The spectre of the Woodman hovers over this movie as inescapably as the maternal shade of Mae Questel over Manhattan in Allen's portion of New York Stories. The film opens with Allen-style white-on-black credits and the sort of classic pop song ("It Had to Be You") he favors as romantic and spiritual benediction. The stages of Harry and Sally's relationship are demarcated by (very funny and endearing) direct-to-camera interviews with half a dozen long-married couples, a tactic Allen has employed since his first feature, Take the Money and Run, and used with particular effectiveness in his own breakthrough relationship movie Annie Hall. Harry's obsession with death (which doesn't come across as much of an obsession) sounds like nothing so much as a collegian's shtick borrowed from Woody Allen pictures. And while Harry and Sally are scarcely alone in loving to revisit Casablanca every time it's on the late show, there's no ignoring that Allen made the ending of that movie an article of romantic and existential value in Play It Again, Sam.

The stakes Woody Allen plays for really are love and death. When he throws a frame around something—a two-shot, an empty room, a corner of Manhattan he treasures—it's an assertion of metaphysical value. One feels his bone-deep commitment to wresting a moment of life from the engulfing void of eternity. Few filmmakers exude such unimpeachable goodwill as Rob Reiner, but it's hard to ascribe that order of vision to him. Where Allen visualizes, Reiner merely photographs. It doesn't feel as if much is at stake in When Harry Met Sally..., not even an erotic imperative. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan walk and talk, say wised-up and sometimes even wise things, but if they couldn't ultimately get it together, nothing would be forfeit but a salable comedy.

Give Reiner and Ephron points on form. The scenario is full of symmetry and recurrence, and the framing device of the married couples pays off in a deft coda that retroactively casts the entire movie in richer perspective. But in another sense it's too formal, or too merely formal. Scenes play less like segments in a shared life than overly worked skits; the comic patterns may be based on truth, but they play like patter.

Too often, one can anticipate just when and how a gambit will peak (a roadside diner will fall silent just as Sally fervently insists, "It just so happens I have had plenty of great sex!"; an older woman in a deli—Rob's own mother Estelle Reiner—listens deadpan to Sally demonstrating a faked orgasm and then says, "I'll have what she's having"). Credibility gets sacrificed for cleverness.

Meg Ryan comes off as a reasonably intelligent young woman, and certainly more appealing than her thankless bimbo role in The Presidio, but one can always see the machinery working. Billy Crystal's Harry likewise fails to touch one very deeply, but he does create a character rather than one more standup bit. He can take an exchange like "You were going to be a gymnast." "Journalist." "Right," and make it convincing dialogue, not shtick. I was reminded of Mandy Patinkin's marvelous performance in The Princess Bride as Inigo Montoya, an absurdist swashbuckler who never lost the cue for passion. Rob Reiner's sweetness and generosity surely have a lot to do with eliciting that performance. Those qualities, coupled with Nora Ephron's bitchy acuity, make When Harry Met Sally... copiously entertaining, if scarcely the great modern romance it might have been.

7 Days, July 19, 1989