I can’t criticize anyone who’s not struck by the party mood as 2008 lurches to a merciful end. Recession, foreclosures, unemployment. Really, what’s to celebrate, so let’s see how a pair of seasonal movies rise above the gloom. The characters that populate “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” survive the holiday gauntlet with their dignity intact. Both films beat back loneliness and offer inspiration. These days we’re all looking for that recipe. That’s what this Smackdown is all about: Whose New Year’s Eve party do you want to attend?
Director Rob Reiner struck gold “When Harry Met Sally…” opened in 1989. The package had everything: a smart, Oscar nominated script from Nora Ephron, and several memorable scenes replayed and parodied over the years. The performances still hold up. Surrounding this is great music from both Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
“Bridget Jones’s Diary” quickly found a worldwide audience in Sharon Maguire’s 2001 feature film directorial debut. Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis adapted Fielding’s popular novel about a London woman concerned about love, her career prospects and her weight. Renee Zellweger shows an easy comic touch with a British accent.
Both movies offer much to celebrate; one more than the other.
After another lousy New Year’s Eve, Bridget Jones starts keeping a diary amid high hopes. She wants to drop some weight, cut back on smoking and drink less. Bridget is not very successful there, or in love. She falls for her scoundrel boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), who likes her well enough until a new thrill comes along. Cleaver is charming, predatory, funny and betrayal comes easily for him. Just ask lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) whose wife ran off with his best man, Daniel Cleaver. Bridget’s parents (Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones) fitfully try to match her with Darcy. He’s becoming interested in a roundabout way but Bridget is not. She’s too busy with her new job as a TV reporter. It’s not going well until Darcy helps her land the big interview. Bridget is still enthralled by the scraps of attention Cleaver tosses her way. Mark Darcy barely shows his cards: “..What I’m trying to say..very inarticulately.. is that despite appearances I like you. Very much.” Bit by bit Bridget’s eyes are opened to Darcy’s submerged decency and Cleaver’s utter lack of character.
The Defending Champion
When Harry first meets Sally, it’s 1977 and they’re sharing a road trip from Chicago to new lives in Manhattan. They are a mismatched pair: Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) is nervous energy incarnate and his talk is provocative: “Men and women,” he says, “can’t be friends because the sex thing gets in the way.” Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is wound so tightly everything squeaks. Order and control are sacraments. There is nothing so benign or trivial that it evades her strict design for living. Lunch with Sally is an adventure with salad dressing on the side, dessert only if the pie is warm and the ice cream is strawberry, otherwise nothing.
After this unlikely start, no contact for five years until a chance meeting at the airport. During their flight Harry and Sally revive an old disagreement about men and women being friends. They can live with that because Harry is getting married and Sally has a beau.
Their orbits won’t cross for several more years and both are now unattached. They seek solace in friends: Harry with Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Sally with Marie and Alice (Carrie Fisher and Lisa Jane Persky). Eventually both groups converge, with mixed results. Jess clicks with Marie, not Sally.
Harry and Sally grow close, then apart. They eventually confront their feelings at a New Year’s Eve party. It’s clear they’ll never resolve their personality differences. After an unconscious courtship lasting 12 years and three months they now find those quirks endearing.
Both movies really benefit from first-rate casting, but I admit any film with Meg Ryan comes with a caveat: She is an acquired taste. Love her or hate her, the screen persona we identify with Meg Ryan first flowered in “Harry / Sally.” Too perky, too blonde, too much the romantic comedy ingénue. Her later career choices fight the stereotype: “Courage Under Fire,” “City of Angels” and “In the Cut” follow different dramatic impulses.
Nora Ephron is a well regarded writer (her collected essays Scribble Scribble and Crazy Salad are dandy) who found her Hollywood muse in Meg Ryan. The results are front row dispatches from the smackdown between men and women. Together they made three successful movies and “Harry / Sally” is the first.
Sally finds an unlikely compatible fit with Billy Crystal’s neurotic Harry Burns. In real life I’m not sure such wide differences in personality and frame of reference can work. In reel life, those are not insurmountable obstacles. More than once these characters should have written off the other, and they do. At one point Sally tells Harry point blank: “You look like a normal person but actually you’re the…angel of death.” Yet they come back for more and it produced an immortal screen moment: that diner scene where Sally imitates a full throated orgasm while the lady at the next table (Rob Reiner’s real life mom) tells the waiter “I’ll have what she’s having.” Who hasn’t seen that moment replayed and reinterpreted dozens of different ways?
It’s Harry and Sally’s well-meaning friends who propel the action by acting as sounding boards and double dates. In those roles Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher are pushy, warm, and right. They set up he movie’s big payoff by dragging Sally to the New Year’s Eve party where Harry goes for broke: “..I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody – you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” I’m not the only man to feel that way.
“Bridget Jones” has Renee Zellweger stepping out of her weight class in more ways than one. The British accent and extra pounds could have backfired, but do not. Bridget’s journey is funny and occasionally believable.Zellweger pulls it off and is blessed with equally strong support actors. Broadbent and Jones are effectively odd and reassuringly human as Bridget’s parents (mom’s dalliance with the TV pitchman is priceless). Bridget’s pals wheedle, harangue and challenge her like any friend would. Like Bridget, they are gulled by Daniel Cleaver and thrilled like the rest of us when Hugh Grant’s character gets punched out. I still cheer when I see that.
I’m less festive about different elements in both films. I shook my head 20 years ago and today at the use of the little “testimonies” sprinkled throughout “Harry / Sally.” In a Ken Burns documentary they help us better understand topics like the Civil War, baseball and jazz.
In this movie, the technique seems manipulative, as though without them we might not understand that people can find love under the most unlikely circumstances. Just not necessary.
Director Maguire may have thought we’d miss Bridget’s emotional mileposts if she didn’t repeatedly bludgeon us with obvious musical cues: “I’m Every Woman” as Bridget resolves to change her life. She strides out of a workplace showdown as Aretha Franklin belts out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” A rowdy fight bounces between restaurants to the strains of “It’s Raining Men.” Enough already. A lighter touch would have conveyed the message without leaving viewers feeling a little stupid.
Two well made popular movies with an honored place in the DVD library. Only one makes better sense when looking to manage a case of growing holiday stress.
This Smackdown could go either way on a different day. Both have real strengths: the characters find love. They are transformed by it. The journey is funny if a little predictable. Both are sharply written and directed well. Both have minor downsides.
That’s why I’m going with the movie that offers distinct conflict, a tangible bad guy you can root against. That’s Daniel Cleaver (extremely well acted by Hugh Grant).
This Smackdown needed more than Harry and Sally getting over themselves to find love. Their journey is anecdotal – very funny – but light on dramatic tension. In these powerless days it may be more satisfying watching Hugh Grant’s character get the smugness pounded off his face. Nobody said it would be pretty, and the knockout punch is found within the pages of our winner, “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”