I canâ€™t criticize anyone whoâ€™s notÂ struck by the party mood as 2009 lurches to a merciful end. Recession,Â foreclosures, unemployment. Really, whatâ€™s to celebrate, so letâ€™s see how aÂ pair of seasonal movies rise above the gloom. The characters that populateÂ â€œWhen Harry Met Sallyâ€¦â€ and â€œBridget Jonesâ€™s Diaryâ€ survive the holidayÂ gauntlet with their dignity intact. Both films beat back loneliness and offerÂ inspiration. These days weâ€™re all looking for that recipe. Thatâ€™s what thisÂ Smackdown is all about: Whose New Yearâ€™s Eve party do you want to attend?
Director Rob Reiner struck gold â€œWhen Harry Met Sallyâ€¦â€Â opened in 1989. The package had everything: a smart, Oscar nominated scriptÂ from Nora Ephron, and several memorable scenes replayed and parodied over theÂ years. The performances still hold up. Surrounding this is great music fromÂ both Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, BennyÂ Goodman and Duke Ellington.
â€œBridget Jonesâ€™s Diaryâ€ quickly found a worldwide audienceÂ in Sharon Maguireâ€™s 2001 feature film directorial debut. Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies andÂ Richard Curtis adapted Fieldingâ€™s popular novel about a London woman concernedÂ about love, her career prospects and her weight. Renee ZellwegerÂ hows an easyÂ comic touch with a British accent.
Both movies offer much to celebrate; one more than theÂ other.
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After another lousy New Yearâ€™s Eve,Â Bridget Jones starts keeping a diary amid high hopes. She wants to drop someÂ weight, cut back on smoking and drink less. Bridget is not very successfulÂ there, or in love. She falls for her scoundrel boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant),Â who likes her well enough until a new thrill comes along. Cleaver is charming,Â predatory, funny and betrayal comes easily for him. Just ask lawyer Mark DarcyÂ (Colin Firth) whose wife ran off with his best man, Daniel Cleaver. Bridgetâ€™sÂ parents (Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones) fitfully try to match her with Darcy.Â Heâ€™s becoming interested in a roundabout way but Bridget is not. Sheâ€™s too busyÂ with her new job as a TV reporter. Itâ€™s not going well until Darcy helps herÂ land the big interview. Bridget is still enthralled by the scraps of attentionÂ Cleaver tosses her way. Mark Darcy barely shows his cards: â€œ..What Iâ€™m tryingÂ to say..very inarticulately.. is that despite appearances I like you. VeryÂ much.â€ Bit by bit Bridgetâ€™s eyes are opened to Darcyâ€™s submerged decency andÂ Cleaverâ€™s utter lack of character.
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The Defending Champion
When Harry first meets Sally,Â itâ€™s 1977 and theyâ€™re sharing a road trip from Chicago to new lives inÂ Manhattan. They are a mismatched pair: Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) is nervous Â energy incarnate and his talk is provocative: â€œMen and women,â€ he says, â€œcanâ€™tÂ be friends because the sex thing gets in the way.â€ Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) isÂ wound so tightly everything squeaks. Order and control are sacraments. There isÂ nothing so benign or trivial that it evades her strict design for living. LunchÂ with Sally is an adventure with salad dressing on the side, dessert only if theÂ pie is warm and the ice cream is strawberry, otherwise nothing.
After this unlikely start, no contact for five years until aÂ chance meeting at the airport. During their flight Harry and Sally revive anÂ old disagreement about men and women being friends. They can live with thatÂ because Harry is getting married and Sally has a beau.
Their orbits wonâ€™t cross for several more years and both areÂ now unattached. They seek solace in friends: Harry with Jess (Bruno Kirby) andÂ Sally with Marie and Alice (Carrie Fisher and Lisa Jane Persky). EventuallyÂ both groups converge, with mixed results. Jess clicks with Marie, not Sally.
Harry and Sally grow close, then apart. They eventuallyÂ confront their feelings at a New Yearâ€™s Eve party. Itâ€™s clear theyâ€™ll neverÂ resolve their personality differences. After an unconscious courtship lastingÂ 12 years and three months they now find those quirks endearing.
Both movies really benefit fromÂ first-rate casting, but I admit any film with Meg Ryan comes with a caveat: SheÂ is an acquired taste. Love her or hate her, the screen persona we identify withÂ Meg Ryan first flowered in â€œHarry / Sally.â€ Too perky, too blonde, too much theÂ romantic comedy ingÃ©nue. Her later career choices fight the stereotype:Â â€œCourage Under Fire,â€ â€œCity of Angelsâ€ and â€œIn the Cutâ€ follow differentÂ dramatic impulses.
Nora Ephron is a well regarded writer (her collected essaysÂ Scribble Scribble and Crazy Salad are dandy) who found her Hollywood muse inÂ Meg Ryan. The results are front row dispatches from the smackdown between men andÂ women. Together they made three successful movies and â€œHarry / Sallyâ€ is theÂ first.
Sally finds an unlikely compatible fit with Billy Crystalâ€™sÂ neurotic Harry Burns. In real life Iâ€™m not sure such wide differences in personalityÂ and frame of reference can work. In reel life, those are not insurmountableÂ obstacles. More than once these characters should have written off the other,Â and they do. At one point Sally tells Harry point blank: â€œYou look like aÂ normal person but actually youâ€™re theâ€¦angel of death.â€ Yet they come back forÂ more and it produced an immortal screen moment: that diner scene where SallyÂ imitates a full throated orgasm while the lady at the next table (Rob Reinerâ€™sÂ real life mom) tells the waiter â€œIâ€™ll have what sheâ€™s having.â€ Who hasnâ€™t seenÂ that moment replayed and reinterpreted dozens of different ways?
Itâ€™s Harry and Sallyâ€™s well-meaning friends who propel theÂ action by acting as sounding boards and double dates. In those roles BrunoÂ Kirby and Carrie Fisher are pushy, warm, and right. They set up the movieâ€™s bigÂ payoff by dragging Sally to the New Yearâ€™s Eve party where Harry goes forÂ broke: â€œ..I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend theÂ rest of your life with somebodyÂ – you want the rest of your life to start asÂ soon as possible.â€ Iâ€™m not the only man to feel that way.Â â€œBridget Jonesâ€ has Renee Zellweger stepping out of herÂ weight class in more ways than one. The British accent and extra pounds couldÂ have backfired, but do not. Bridgetâ€™s journey is funny and occasionallyÂ believable.Zellweger pulls it off and
is blessed with equally strong support actors. Broadbent and Jones areÂ effectively odd and reassuringly human as Bridgetâ€™s parents (momâ€™s dallianceÂ with the TV pitchman is priceless). Bridgetâ€™s pals wheedle, harangue andÂ challenge her like any friend would. Like Bridget, they are gulled by DanielÂ Cleaver and thrilled like the rest of us when Hugh Grantâ€™s character getsÂ punched out. I still cheer when I see that.
Iâ€™m less festive about different elements in both films. IÂ shook my head 20 years ago and today at the use of the little â€œtestimoniesâ€Â sprinkled throughout â€œHarry / Sally.â€ In a Ken Burns documentary they help usÂ better understand topics like the Civil War, baseball and jazz.
In this movie, the technique seems manipulative, as thoughÂ without them we might not understand that people can find love under the mostÂ unlikely circumstances. Just not necessary.
Director Maguire may have thought weâ€™d miss Bridgetâ€™sÂ emotional mileposts if she didnâ€™t repeatedly bludgeon us with obvious musicalÂ cues: â€œIâ€™m Every Womanâ€ as Bridget resolves to change her life. She strides outÂ of a workplace showdown as Aretha Franklin belts out â€œR-E-S-P-E-C-T.â€ A rowdyÂ fight bounces between restaurants to the strains of â€œItâ€™s Raining Men.â€ EnoughÂ already. A lighter touch would have conveyed the message without leavingÂ viewers feeling a little stupid.
Two Â well made popular movies with an honored place in theÂ DVD library. Only one makes better sense when looking to manage a case ofÂ growing holiday stress.
This Smackdown could go either way on aÂ different day. Both have real strengths: the characters find love. They areÂ transformed by it. The journey is funny if a little predictable. Both areÂ sharply written and directed well. Both have minor downsides.
Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m going with the movie that offers distinctÂ conflict, a tangible bad guy you can root against. Thatâ€™s Daniel Cleaver (extremelyÂ well acted by Hugh Grant).
This Smackdown needed more than Harry and Sally getting overÂ themselves to find love. Their journey is anecdotal â€“ very funny â€“ but light onÂ dramatic tension. In these powerless days it may be more satisfying watchingÂ Hugh Grantâ€™s character get the smugness pounded off his face. Nobody said itÂ would be pretty, and the knockout punch is found within the pages of ourÂ winner, â€œBridget Jonesâ€™s Diary.â€