Say Anything... is an honest, good-natured film about first love that holds hard reality and eternal optimism in a gentle balancing act. In his directorial debut, Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) works the magic of an alchemist, turning the stuff of everyday life into golden nuggets of insight into that wonderful and awkward moment in life when teenagers graduate from high school and find themselves on the brink of entering the adult world.
When the film was first released, Crowe was already well-known as the former Rolling Stone writer who had penned Fast Times at Ridgemont (1982) and The Wild Life (1986), both teen movies, the former of which had kernels of truth amongst its bawdy humor and the latter of which was completely divorced from the real world. When Crowe sat down to write Say Anything..., he wanted to make it real; he wanted to address the complexities of the lives of young adults in a way that most teen movies weren't doing. He succeeded magnificently.
The main character is Lloyd Dobbler, played by John Cusack, himself a veteran of '80s teen movies such as Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead (1989) and One Crazy Summer (1986) and Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985). Even though (or perhaps because) he was graduating to more adult roles, Cusack was able to bring to the role of Lloyd an endearing combination of the crucial elements of youthful optimism and an adult understanding of how the world really works. Crowe has described Lloyd as his "warrior for optimism," which is an accurate description. Lloyd has hope, but he doesn't have the conventional kind of dreams he is expected to have. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life; but, like Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967), he knows he doesn't want it to be typical. His father, who is stationed overseas, wants him to join the army, and his school counselor wants him to enroll in the local community college, both conventional futures that don't fit this unconventional young man, whose most specific goal is to maybe to become a professional kick-boxer. "I'm looking for a dare-to-be-great situation," he says at one point.
The one thing Lloyd does know he wants, though, is to go out with Diane Court (Ione Skye). "Girls like Diane Court don't go out with guys like you," declares Lloyd's best friend, Corey (Lili Taylor), who knows something about love and heartbreak, as she is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, a cad named Joe (Loren Dean), about whom she has written 65 songs. Described as "a brain trapped in the body of a game-show hostess," Diane would appear to be out of Lloyd's league. The class valedictorian who everybody knows of, but few people actually know, Diane has just won a prestigious fellowship to study abroad in England, something that greatly pleases her father (John Mahoney), a divorcee who has put his heart and soul into raising the perfect daughter.
But, being the eternal optimist who will not see the world as others define it for him, Lloyd calls Diane and asks her out. She is reluctant at first, but eventually she agrees--Lloyd's persistence wears her down. They go to a party, at which Lloyd is asked several times how he got Diane to go out with him. "I called her up," he replies matter-of-factly, because that is how his mind works. Lloyd then goes to Diane's house for dinner, they begin spending time together as friends, and, as Diane spends more and more time with him, she sees exactly what he is about and how he is everything she has missed out on in life while studying and disciplining herself to be top of the class. He offers her simple pleasures, emotional support, and, most of all, absolute love and honesty.
Crowe structures Say Anything... as a love triangle, in which Diane finds herself caught between her dedicated father, whom she chose to live with when her parents divorced five years earlier and to whom she can say anything (she even admits to him when she and Lloyd sleep together for the first time), and Lloyd, who her father sees as unworthy of his daughter's attention. "You're a distraction," he declares at one point, which illustrates how little he actually knows. A subplot involving an IRS investigation of Diane's father's nursing home slowly develops into a momentous break in which everything Diane thought she knew turns out to be a lie--and which forces her to realize who in her life is truly honest.
Say Anything... works beautifully for a number of reasons. Crowe's script is honest and straightforward in its simplicity, yet deeply moving in its details and nuances. He has a way with dialogue in which characters are able to speak volumes without saying much at all. He brings depth and insight to screen clichs--the warm-hearted underachiever, the socially repressed valedictorian, the overbearing father. He starts with types, but allows them to become flesh and blood on screen, people we understand and vaguely recognize, people we can feel with and for.
Of course, Crowe's writing is only one part of the equation; he needed the right actors, and the film soars in its performances. John Cusack and Ione Skye, first of all, look like and act like ordinary teenagers, something that is surprisingly rare in many teen movies. Cusack has a wonderful nervous energy throughout; the scene in which he first calls Diane and ends up talking to her father is a wonderful setpiece situated in a tiny bathroom that captures everything that is exciting and horrifying about that first phone call. At that moment, he is so hopeful, yet so vulnerable. Ione Skye completes the film as Diane, in an emotionally complex performance that requires her to be both completely confident in herself and yet utterly unsure of everything. It is also worth mentioning the excellent work of John Mahoney, now best known for his role on Frasier, in playing a man who is ultimately a villain of sorts, yet one who is both understandable and sympathetic.
The 1980s was an era in which the teen movie--primarily those directed and/or written by John Hughes--ruled the movie theaters. There were teen dramas, teen comedies, teen musicals, teen horror flicks, and just about every other kind of movie with teenagers in them, and when Say Anything... was released in the spring of 1989, the decade-long cycle seemed to have run its course. But, as these things tend to go, it turned out that they had saved the best for last.
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
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All images copyright 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (4)
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