The eternal question: Can optimists, pessimists be friends?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron struck gold with When Harry Met Sally, the famous romantic comedy that questions whether or not men and women can ever be friends.

Romantic comedies have a bad reputation, but I don't think it's an opinion to say that the film is well-crafted. Though humor is subjective, there's much less wiggle room in determining how characters are developed throughout a narrative. And the two protagonists in that film, undoubtedly, are a work-in-progress from beginning to end. Yes, the main theme of the film is the complexity of men and women and how these complexities marry to form equally complicated relationships.

But the film also explores optimism and pessimism, revealing that it's impossible to be completely on one end of the spectrum. As the two main characters, aptly named Harry Burns and Sally Albright, develop, this idea does, too.

Harry and Sally begin the narrative as foils, carpooling together from Chicago to New York City after graduating from college. Harry, who believes men and women cannot be friends because of sexual attraction, states early on that he has a dark side.

"When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first," he tells Sally on the 20-hour drive. "That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends."

Sally, on the other hand, is the eternal optimist; Harry remarks to her when they first meet that she's probably one of those people who dots her "i's" with little hearts. After she turns down his sexual advances, both decide they cannot be friends and separate once they arrive in New York.

They meet again five years later at an airport, where Harry's pessimistic exterior has begun to soften. He tells Sally he is engaged to be married, explaining that falling in love can change a man. He adds that he has also become tired of dating, sleeping with women and never calling them again, so he's not exactly floating on clouds here.

Sally is still fairly optimistic, telling her boyfriend she loves him for the first time before boarding the plane. Again, Harry and Sally separate and decide not to be friends. When they meet five years later, Harry is distraught from his impending divorce and Sally is seemingly well-adjusted after her five-year relationship has ended. This is when they become friends.

They finally connect because they have both experienced great joy and great pain and can now identify with each other. At the end of the film, they predictably get together at a New Year's Eve party. Somehow, it doesn't feel so predictable.

Though he is willing to open himself up to love again, Harry hasn't lost his pessimistic edge. And Sally, who tearfully recalls her ex-boyfriend getting engaged shortly after their breakup, still retains her optimism in accepting Harry's proclamation of love. They've both loved and lost but are willing to love all over again.

It's an amalgamation of pessimism and optimism. Together, Harry and Sally form middle ground between the two outlooks. Always identifying as a pessimist, I never really saw this in the film. In fact, I almost always understood Harry better than Sally.

Then I discovered great happiness. I found a job I love. I found a man I love. Today, I have the most hope I have ever had, and I'm truly grateful for that. Though I am now happy most of the time, I still tend to think the worst of others. I curse at bad drivers and I think about death for hours sometimes.

I'm not Harry Burns anymore, but I'm not Sally Albright either. The more life experience I gain, the more I think that we're all a Harry-Sally hybrid, equally capable of extreme sadness and extreme happiness, just trying to figure out where we fall on the spectrum.

* * *

Samantha Jones is a reporter for the Carroll County News.