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  • Weston Tybor

Accidental Utopia

I’m not a chick, but I am an avid consumer of their flicks. Nora Ephron is an especially noteworthy creator – she’s responsible for writing “When Harry Met Sally (WHMS),” “You’ve Got Mail (YGM),” and “Sleepless in Seattle (SiS).” Although it may not have been her intention, her films are, to me, the closest pieces of media to capture utopia through simplistic conflict, character relationships, and sharp humor. 

Ephron’s movies are regarded as classics, often referenced in other media. Her movies have this impact because Ephron doesn’t worry about anything outside of the characters’ relationship. Her characters are wealthy, despite living in expensive areas (usually Manhattan). It’s comforting because of the escapism it brings; the audience can vicariously live through the characters. Their clothes, apartments, and quality of dining are high-end with concerns about finances being unheard of. They never take the subway, no one gets harassed, love triangles end mutually. Including these issues would distract from the romance. By removing all problems, save for romantic conflict, Ephron creates an engaging movie with just enough friction captured in a utopian setting. Media needs to include some complications – there can never be true utopia, but Ephron creates the closest version of it by removing as much conflict as possible.  

If her movies have an inclusion of genuine dilemmas, it only furthers the utopia. “YGM”’s plot surrounds employment, but it’s inherently tied to romance. The main characters own competing book stores while messaging online without knowing who the other is. The rivalry layers the romance: when they realize the person they’ve been falling for online is someone they hate in real life, it adds necessary conflict. It makes the characters question if their romantic feelings are enough to trump their disdain. It eventually does, illustrating that love is stronger than hate – something that advances the utopic sensation. 

There are plot points that in other contexts would create dystopia, but Ephron maintains idealism. In “SiS,”  the lead, Sam, is widowed and left as a single father. His romantic interest, Annie, hears his story on the radio and believes they’re meant to be. Annie writes him letters but Sam never reciprocates. So, she travels from Manhattan to Seattle, just for Sam to see her (a woman he’s never met). The plot sounds unsettling, with Annie seeming borderline stalkerish. But the beautiful Meg Ryan plays the character as quirky and adorable, making everything she does romantic, not creepy. 

Ephron’s witty writing enhances the utopia she constructs. The characters stay playful despite conflict. When Harry confesses his love for Sally, it’s done through inside jokes –“I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich.” The humor doesn't feel cheap because it’s been developed throughout the film, making the writing sharp. The movie is light because the characters maintain well-written humor. The uncomfortable situations are also funny which minimizes conflict – despite issues, the tone is upbeat. 

Ephron didn’t intend to comment on utopia, only to tell love stories. However, from her romantic ambience, well-meaning characters, and witty dialogue, it’s obvious why her films are classics – they remind the audience of utopia, of a life they want to live. Movies that make us think, “I’ll have what she’s having.”  


Art by Jos Bronner


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