The 20-somethings star in the 1992 film, Crowe’s follow-up to the 1989 Say something, all live in the same quirky set-dressed building, hang out at the same hip coffee shop (where at least one of the group works), and have an intertwined romantic history. There’s even a courtyard fountain where ensemble leader Campbell Scott and Bridget Fonda hang out and mirror Friends‘ exuberant opening credits. Plus, both casts of attractively witty and romance-seeking Gen-Xers are all resolutely and homogeneously white.
But looking back through Crowe’s filmography reveals their own telling influences. The film, periodically framed by characters speaking their wise thoughts directly to the camera, calls up Woody Allen (complete with Hannah and her sisters-style intermediate chapter titles). And his 1999 collaboration with a humorously cautious and troubled Billy Wilder on a career retrospective book Conversations with Billy Wildercemented the writer-director’s career-long obsession with Wilder’s ever-present, often far more successful search for the perfect bittersweet line of comedic dialogue.
Here, Crowe’s primary mouthpiece is Scott’s Steve, a mid-level government employee whose professional drive focuses on creating a Seattle gridlock-mitigating “super train”—and who also goes out every night to hear the nascent grunge scene’s finest at the city’s hippest clubs. Singles‘ soundtrack was ultimately the huge success that Singles even it wasn’t, with Crowe’s lifelong pursuit of music scene legitimacy and the playability of the film’s soundtrack providing a prescient glimpse into the Seattle sound that would take over the nation later that year. After sending his commuter train proposal up the chain of command, Steve was called “a realist dreamer” by his impressed immediate boss, a guide to Singles‘ overall vibe of young professionals who work within the system but still manage to find time to dance for a living Alice in Chains.
Later, after a breakup with his on-and-off love interest Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), she wryly tells Steve, “You always say the perfect thing”—another trait Crowe’s script puts on the engaging Scott, an interesting actor at the time at the pinnacle of his mainstream rom-com charisma. In Crowe’s film, the search for the perfect, Wilder-style killer line has meandered through the years. (The wise wise moss of Aloha and Elizabethtown are prime examples, but there are plenty of eye-rolling speeches as far back as Jerry Maguire.) Steve here emerges as Crowe’s ideal romantic, disturbed by failed romance but still prone to the kind of grand gestures and poetically self-serving statements that have characterized Crowe’s male protagonists. “If I had a personal conversation with God, I’d ask him to create this girl,” Steve beams about Linda, to the due admiration of his friends.
Fortunately for Singles, Scott, like Say something‘s John Cusack, brings enough natural charm to offset scenes where Steve, trying to win over the accidentally pregnant Linda with a proposal, declares, “Someone who really cares about you has to scare you to death.” Sedgwick – never more appealing as the battle-hardened environmentalist Linda – is repeatedly charmed by Steve’s often haughty suitor, as viewers are conditioned to accept that borderline paternalistic romance is okay as long as it comes with a good twist.
Watch the trailer for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’
SinglesAnother big draw is a young Fonda as coffee house waitress and lapsed architecture student Janet, who has drifted from a past romance with neighbor Steve to a dizzying, partially reciprocated crush with downstairs neighbor Cliff Poncier. Played by a remarkably safe and goofy Matt Dillon as the also-powered wannabe grunge frontman Mud honey rival Citizen Dick, Cliff can barely keep his attention on the adoring Janet in favor of his adoring groupies and Citizen Dick’s fraught battle for the legitimacy of the Seattle scene. “We are huge in Belgium and in Italy!” he states, trying to rally his stoner bandmates (including Eddie Vedder and Jeff Amentjust before forming Pearl Jam), Cliff’s pitch-perfect gripe’s ignorance delivered with just enough genuine gusto to be comically affecting.
Singles tries to build from its core of protagonists, but the ensemble approach never quite comes together. Other residents of the impeccably quirky apartment complex include Jim True (a decade before he traced one of TV’s most compellingly unlikely redemption arcs as The thread‘s Roland Pryzbylewski) as hipster maitre d’ David Bailey. Wearing a beret and a soul patch, the character’s nebulous claim to live life “like a French movie” is never fleshed out by Crowe, suggesting that several subplots were discarded along the way. Sheila Kelley’s Debbie is perhaps the most obvious Friends-esque of the group, her foray into then-trendy video dating played out with a decidedly deflating sitcom vibe. (In a cameo, director Tim Burton accepts a bribe to direct her ultimately silly and pretentious video, a dating service worker’s breathless declaration that he is next Martin Scorsese an in-joke that only becomes less accurate with time.)
The film’s shaggy structure ultimately hinges on Steve and Linda’s story, with Janet and Cliff’s more knockout relationship coming in a respectable second. In addition to a pregnancy scare, Scott and Sedgwick’s on-and-off couple contend with a car accident, a resulting miscarriage, a month-long ocean separation (while Sedgwick studies the lingering effects of the 1989 Exxon Alaska oil spill), and in Crowe’s clumsy roadblock to their inevitable reconciliation, Sedgwick’s tape-swallowing answering machine. For Crowe, Steve’s drunken late-night phone calls (from the graffiti-strewn phone box of a club where Soundgarden plays “Birth Ritual”) is Singles‘ mission statement, a sad but still cleverly constructed grand romantic gesture in which the heartbroken Steve blurts out an impassioned, “You! Belong! With! Me!” while angry clubbers try to beat down the door. Like Lloyd Dobler with his boombox, this is Steve as a broken but tireless romantic, throwing his bare heart at a woman and expecting her to take it in and nurture it.
Naturally, Sedgwick’s Linda does with a long-delayed visit to the apartment, where a disheveled Steve wallows in empty pizza boxes and misery. (His idealistic passion project is shot down by Tom Skerritt’s would-be mayor of Seattle, putting yet another disillusionment on Steve’s already sore shoulders.) “I just wasn’t anywhere near your neighborhood,” Linda coyly announces, her own cleverness merely an echo of the line Steve first. employed to win into her apartment first. Meanwhile, Janet’s journey to win over the straight-laced Cliff takes the form of a proposed breast job. When she’s talked out of unnecessary cosmetic surgery by none other than her own plastic surgeon (a winning Bill Pullman, in which he deploys a Scott-like handball by making his subsequent handoff to Janet less creepy than it should be), Fonda turns Janet’s exuberant self-actualization into a light but valuable arc of empowerment. That she ends up back with a repentant Cliff (after he finally remembers to say “Bless you” after she sneezes in the elevator) is the kind of feel-good ending that never quite feels right, but Fonda and Dillon are both so engaged and appealing that we are conditioned by the point to let it slide.
Back to Friends comparison: Singles, despite the efforts of its talented cast, is a gentrified romantic drama. Crowe’s dedication to showcasing his Seattle locale (he had fallen in love with both it and Seattle’s native rock legend Nancy Wilson) and its music scene do Singles feel lived in, even if its attractive, self-sufficient young cast moves through it more like tourists. (Steve’s oft-mentioned obsession with late SuperSonics star Xavier McDaniel results in an intrusive but humorous McDaniel cameo in the middle.)
Like its influential soundtrack – including a fine score and two excellent songs from post-Replacements Paul Westerberg — Singles functions as a sincerely assembled time capsule of time and place, even if the film’s staying power has not been as indelible.
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