Say Anything…

January 7, 2011

Cusack, Skye, awesomeness

Film observers are fond of despairing about the state of movies today by pointing out that most films are aimed at a teenage audience, because teens make up the heftiest percentage of the movie-going public. It follows that a lot of movies are also about teenagers.

Despite conventional wisdom, not all of these teen movies are bad. Witness, for example, Say Anything…, a mostly wonderful new movie that happens to be about teenagers and their problems. Say Anything… treats its milieu with freshness and spunk and an absolute refusal to condescend to its characters.

The central situation is familiar enough. It’s the last summer after high school, before kids go off to college. Normal guy Lloyd (John Cusack) finally summons up the courage to ask out Diane (Ione Skye), the school’s best scholar, a gorgeous gal but heretofore unapproachable. The differences in their backgrounds (she’s headed for England to study on a prestigious scholarship; he’s destined to schlump around and maybe pursue his dream of being a professional kick-boxer) suggest a traditional mixed romance.

But writer-director Cameron Crowe isn’t interested in merely connecting the dots. The relationship between these two is handled in unorthodox terms; virtually every scene has some delightful surprise in it. And equally important is the character of Diane’s father (John Mahoney), who has been the driving force behind his daughter’s academic success. (The suggestion that a parent might be something other than a nuisance is also an unorthodox touch in this genre.)

Eventually the movie reveals that the father has some serious problems of his own, and for a while it seems that Say Anything… is made up of two separate movies, co-existing somewhat uneasily. In retrospect this doesn’t seem too troublesome, especially given the fine performance by the superb character actor Mahoney (from Tin Men and Eight Men Out and Moonstruck).

This is Crowe’s first film as a director. He isn’t quite fluid as a filmmaker yet, but that hardly matters. He has caught some beautiful scenes, such as the talk between Diane and her father in which she explains frankly why she and Lloyd spent the night together (they agreed not to sleep together, she says, but “then I attacked him anyway”), and a terrific ending that reminded me of how few moviemakers know how to end things well and wittily.

Some moments I’ll remember a long time. After their first date, Diane impulsively hugs Lloyd (a lovely awkward moment) and goes into her house. She wonders whether he feels bad because she called him “basic,” then looks out the window. Lloyd is standing in the middle of the empty residential street, ceremonially taking bows. No, he’s not feeling bad.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It was great then, it’s still great now. The casual-yet-expressive use of Seattle locations is more effective than the more picturesque and site-specific Singles. One thing I have never known, but could probably answer by making with the Google, is why the title has an ellipsis. Imagine how many problems this has caused over the years.

I wrote something else about the movie here.