This is one of the four or five best romantic comedies ever written, and after watching it today, I was able to analyse the decisively brilliant moment I had never thoughtmuch about before.
Here's a transcript of the New Year's Eve party scene, just before the end of the film:
Harry: I've been doing a lot of thinking. And the
thing is, I love you.
Harry: I love you.
Sally: How do you expect me to respond to this?
Harry: How about you love me too?
Sally: How about I'm leaving.
Harry: Doesn't what I said mean anything to you?
Sally: I'm sorry Harry, I know it's New Years Eve, I know
you're feeling lonely, but you just can't show up here, tell me
you love me and expect that to make everything alright.
It doesn't work this way.
Harry: Well how does it work?
Sally: I don't know but not this way.
Harry: Well how about this way. I love that you get
cold when it's seventy one degrees out, I love that it takes you an hour
and a half to order a sandwich, I love that you get a little crinkle
above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts, I love that
after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes
and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go
to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because
it's New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realise you want
to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the
life to start as soon as possible.
Sally: You see, that is just like you Harry. You say
things like that and you make it impossible for me to hate you.
And I hate you Harry... I really hate you. I hate you.
Harry: What does this song mean? For my whole life
I don't know what this song means. I mean, 'Should old acquaintance be forgot".
Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances or does it mean if we happen to
forget them we should remember them, which is not possible because we already
Sally: Well may be it just means that we should remember
that we forgot them or something. Anyway it's about old friends.
Why does this work so well?
I only figured out today, after God knows how many viewings (I own the DVD)
Here's the emotional choreography:
Harry makes first move. In a classic feint to the negative, Sally rejects it. So Harry digs deeper, gets specific and hits the emotional bull's eye. She caps the moment with the "it's impossible to hate you" speech.
The scene could have ended there. Many a lesser writer would have been ecstatic to get that far. But Ephron has one more card to play. I call it the 'off-topic feint' -- a line that seems to draw us away from the immediate moment, or pull the characters away from each other and into the broader context of the scene -- in this case, a New Year's Ever party with Auld Lang Syne playing as the ball drops. On its own, without reference to the ultimate strategy, this is a brilliant tactic: Harry makes an 'off hand' comment that's typically clever and charming -- what the hell does this song mean, anyway? It sets up their reunion as a fait accompli. They can now return to 'business as usual' -- just talking about stuff and enjoying each other's company.
The great narrative coup come just after Sally's halting, heartfelt attempt to answer: "Maybe it means we're just supposed to remember we forgot them or something."
Ephron takes this seemingly random bit of chit-chat and uses it to pull us all the way back into the absolute thematic center and the emotional heart of her story:
Sally says, "Anyway, it's about old friends."
Aint it the truth.
This is close to genius, and there's a lot to learn from it: using the apparently trivial external aspects of the scene to define and fulfill your story.
Whatever her later failures, you can't take this one away from Nora Ephron.
Happy New Year!