We've all got a Harry Burns in our life. You know—the negative Nelly who deflects with humor? He's Chandler Bing, Dr. House, Liz Lemon… you get the idea. Point being? Harry's not exactly happy. Let's look at the evidence:
- He reads the end of a book first in case he dies before he finishes it. Pessimistic, much?
- He basically implies that his whole reason for marrying Helen is so he won't have to date anymore.
- He's not sleeping. And when he does, it's only on one side of the bed.
- He rails at Jess and Marie, telling them they're going to end up just like him and his wife: miserable and divorced.
- He moans himself to sleep at night.
Why's Harry so unhappy? Well, we've got a few theories. The obvious answer is that he's divorced. And a divorce is enough to drive anyone down into the dumps. But the truth is, Harry seems somewhat unhappy before that. After all, isn't it his first meeting with Sally where he reveals that he reads the ends of books first? Harry's just straight-up pessimistic. And while that makes for some excellent sarcastic one-liners, thinking about death for hours—even days—on end is not exactly the best path to a cheerful existence.
Of course Harry's pessimism is ultimately proven right—at first. His wife Helen rather cruelly dumps him for another man. Did we mention it was out of the blue? It's clear his divorce throws Harry for a loop—and it's the first sign of change we see in him. When he reunites with Sally in the bookstore and kindles a friendship, he's still unhappy, but he's clearly got less of an edge. Now, instead of relying on his dark side, he turns to the lifelong buddy of the true neurotic: sarcasm.
Humor Helps Harry Hide
Harry is hilarious. That's a fact.
Need proof? Look no further than this famous scene in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Sure the "pepper on my paprikash" scene is a classic, but it's also a genuinely sweet moment for Harry. That marks it as different from his many other uses of humor.
See, Harry often uses humor as a defense mechanism, a way to deflect everyone else away from his actual feelings. Just check out what happens at the end of that scene. Harry has gone back to his normal voice, until Sally tells him she thinks it's time for him to get back in the dating saddle. Instead of answering her genuinely, he puts the funny accent on again. He tells her the truth—"I'm not ready […]. I would not be good for anybody right now." The accent helps hide how he really feels, even as he's being honest with Sally. It's his way of taking the emotional weight out of the situation, of making things seem easy-breezy when they're so obviously not.
That's not the only time he does it, either. Harry brings humor to even the most awful of situations, like when he tells his friend Jess the story of Helen leaving him and remarks on the mover's "Don't f*** with Mr. Zero" t-shirt. Or when he makes a crack about Helen saving everything—and therefore retaining water—after running into her and Ira at The Sharper Image. For guys like Harry, humor is a refuge.
But Let's Give Harry Some Credit
Before you go thinking that Harry is nothing more than a sad, sarcastic sap, we thought we'd spend some time looking at the bright side of Harry: his evolution.
In many ways, Harry's the one who changes the most over the course of the movie—even more than Sally. He starts off the movie snarky and cynical. He embraces his "dark side" and has no problem being inappropriate in conversations and pushing Sally's buttons.
But the loss and grief that come with a bad divorce soften him up a bit, and by the time he reunites with Sally and the two become friends, he's a much nicer guy. He even apologizes to Sally for being a jerk all those years ago, and later in the movie apologizes for lashing out at her when he's really just upset about seeing Helen again. He's come a long way from spitting grape seeds out Sally's window and asking her if she wants to get a room.
Of course, we don't realize the depth of his change until he makes his big romantic overture to Sally in the movie's climactic scene. When he tells her that he loves her, he says that "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." Swoon-worthy, right?
And think about it: his reason for wanting to be with Sally is nothing more than that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. It's not because it's New Year's and it's not because he's lonely: it's because he loves all her little quirks.
Now, think back to why he married Helen, which we learn when he's talking to Sally on the plane. First, he says he's fallen "madly in love." But then we get the cold, hard truth: "Plus, you know, you just get to a certain point where you get tired of the whole thing." We've heard of more romantic (and sensible) reasons to get married than "I'm tired."
By the end of the movie, we know that he doesn't want to be with Sally because he's tired of the single-guy life—he wants to be with her because of her, as his grand speech suggests. And that's why we're betting their marriage will last.
A Note on What Billy Brings
It's safe to say that, in the hands of anyone besides Billy Crystal, Harry just wouldn't be Harry. Much of the dialogue he shares with Sally—and their enduring closeness—comes from the friendship Crystal shared with director Rob Reiner. Remember that scene where Harry and Sally watch Casablanca together over the phone? As it turns out, Reiner and Crystal used to do that every night. Totes adorbs, right?