(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: September 18, 1992)
A decade after his Fast Times at Ridgemont High script charted teenage wildlife with smarts and sensitivity, Cameron Crowe came further of age with Singles. This was his sophomore effort as writer/director after Say Anything, which found Crowe in a memorable position in terms of 1980s youth cinema. Fast Times broke through among 1982's rut of smut by establishing a diverse, identifiable trajectory through senior year for its coterie of characters, finding wry dignity among the humiliations of crashed cars, sexual follies and apathetic pep rallies. And as teen movies grew more sophisticated, Crowe closed the decade out with the bittersweet Say Anything and eclipsed John Hughes in the process.
Crowe's most endearing quality as a writer by the 1990s was his propensity for humanist naturalism. He didn't opt for cheap melodramatics and listened to the hearts of his youthful protagonists with brotherly concern. The dialogue felt authentic, the sticky situations were handled with grace and the performances he oversaw proved star-making, even if the names of few would fade over time (Judge Reinhold, Ione Skye). Crowe treated both Jeff Spicoli's stoned surfer philosophy and Lloyd Dobler's wounded romanticism with unbiased empathy, and almost everything else in between just felt more facile by comparison.
These highs emboldened Crowe to aim for a West Coast parallel to Woody Allen's Manhattan, although the idea for Singles had been gestating ever since 1984, when Crowe cranked out a cheapie cash-in on Fast Times called The Wild Life. The unimaginative title was indicative of the movie's overall quality, and it faded into obscurity despite having Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson among its rising star ensemble.
Crowe's background as a rock 'n' roll writer also led him to the underground Seattle scene, which would topple the Sunset Strip's hair metal blitz in the popular culture by the time Warner Bros. settled on a release date. This was blessed and cursed in equal proportions, as while seeing Alice in Chains and Soundgarden live is anthropologically stimulating, the publicity for the actual movie indicted Crowe for allegedly piggy-backing on the grunge explosion, when it was the studio who were being so grossly opportunistic. They even deigned to change the maligned title of Singles with that of "Come As You Are," based on the one Seattle breakthrough rock band who kept their distance from Crowe's project.
The catalyst for Crowe as well as the local musicians was the heroin-induced loss of Andrew Wood, front man of Mother Love Bone. There was a ripple effect which caused the Seattle scene to bust even wider open, as Crowe found inspiration for his revised script, Jerry Cantrell would write Alice in Chains' most beloved song in Wood's honor (heard live in the film, that tune is "Would?") and the remaining members of Mother Love Bone would migrate to Pearl Jam.
"Is anybody truly single?" Crowe asked himself in the midst of the tragedy, and Singles attempts to reach an answer amongst the strain of miscommunication and awkward vibes. The affluent, independent young adults Crowe spotlights dare to fall in love against their better judgment. The primary coupling of environmental crusader Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick) and transportation engineer Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) would seem like the perfect match, but personal commitments and romantic horrors from their past keep them on their guard.
Linda, for instance, has recently been burned by a deceptive lothario named Luiz (Camilo Gallardo), posing as a visitor from Spain whose expired visa sets them on a whirlwind courtship. Just as Linda is getting serious about commitment to the absent Luiz, she catches him down the bar one night making moves on another single woman. Instantaneously, she buys a new garage door opener to replace the one she gave him as a keepsake, echoes of Diane Court's legendary parting gift of a pen to Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. Steve, meanwhile, is bemused by the rat king he finds himself in after his last failed affair, and decides to devote himself to work, "the only thing I have complete control over."
Linda fatefully meets Steve at a nightclub, leading to a "water date" at the local café. They finally hook up at Steve's apartment after some initial trepidation, struggling to balance their obligations even as Linda becomes pregnant, but frustration and fulfillment tend to go hand-in-hand. The other tenants in Steve's complex also get locked in push-and-pull relationships, with coffee shop waitress Janet Livermore (Bridget Fonda) vainly attempting to ensnare the affection of a detached, delusional wannabe rock star, Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon), lead singer for Citizen Dick. Meanwhile, the non-committed likes of head waiter David Bailey (Jim True) and advertising executive Debbie Hunt (Sheila Kelley) take it as it comes.
Whereas Bailey is content to collect 20 phone numbers in his watch as a show of self-importance and Debbie is so hard-up she follows through on a video dating lead her friends gifted her as a joke, Linda has her mind set on the terminally aloof Cliff. "You're spazzing off on me," he retorts when Janet attempts to persuade him of their connection. Janet even contemplates breast augmentation surgery to stack up against Cliff's Amazonian ideals, a co-dependent mistake she luckily avoids once she wises up to her own rut and goes her own way, finally spurring Cliff into paying attention.
All the while, Crowe lets his characters occasionally break the fourth wall in confessional and structures the action as a barrage of sketches. The title Singles takes on a dual meaning when preface cards such as "The Hourglass Syndrome" and "Blues for a T-Shirt" crop up, as Crowe essentially pulls a Nick Hornby by turning plot into record collection inventory. A tactic like this is more frustratingly cutesy than his humble slice-of-life insights require, and also not a little self-indulgent. First we watch Janet recoil in humiliation from making a risqué phone call to someone who is not Cliff, and then it's back to Steve and Linda's anxious unraveling of their romantic ambitions.
Crowe's writing needs no devices because, just as before, there is charm enough to divvy up in fair proportions. Bridget Fonda is at the height of her plucky beauty as Janet, the kind of mid-twenties eccentric with a refrigerator full of boho dead giveaways (half-eaten birthday cake, a cup of Chinese takeout sauce), but aware that she only has limited time before she goes from endearing to simply bizarre. When the going gets rough, she consults plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Jamison (Bill Pullman) for increasing her bust, inviting a playful chemistry as they argue over a simulated computer image of Janet's wild quest for beauty. The farewell meeting between these two is aggravating in that it denies any kind of reunion between Janet and Jeff, such fun as it is to be around them.
Debbie Hunt, meanwhile, may be termed a maneater but she's not despicable in her endeavors. All she wants is a boy toy to accompany her on vacation to Cabo, sensibly. The commercial package she purchases from the video dating service comes complete with the $20 bargain of being directed by Tim Burton, who is lauded as being "only, like, the next Martin Scor-seez." The big reveal is hilarious, from its opening rip from Psycho to "Debbie country," which is "where the flavor is." Naturally, this leads to one of the candidates being Peter Horton from TV's thirtysomething, who parks his bike in between Debbie and her roomie Pam (Ally Walker).
Cliff, the Wyld Stallyn of Seattle, is played with enough self-effacing aplomb by Matt Dillon, whether leaning back on Hendrix's grave with an arrogant smirk or desperately clinging to Citizen Dick's following in Belgium for security. Band mate Eddie Vedder mumbles his way through Cliff's paragraph in a review (conducted by Crowe, who salutes his own journalistic upbringing), but Cliff will not be deterred: "This negativity just makes me stronger!" Alas, being without Janet reduces him to confiding to the camera, too, and his fumbling attempts to get her back pay off marvelously just by simply saying those magic words: "Bless you."
Even eligible bachelor Steve has his own odd details. When he and Linda get intimate, he tries to keep from climaxing by means of a locker room interview with his favorite hoop-dreamer Xavier McDaniel.
Singles does make token nods to the post-1980s milieu of safe sex (a college party where people dress as their favorite contraceptive) and uncertain careerism (Tom Skerritt as the mayor of Seattle lowers the hammer on Steve). But Crowe ultimately finds in these character's philosophies, such as Janet's ambivalence towards casual sex, the root of companionship that is what these characters sustain themselves with on the road to love. Coffee shop conversations, oddball platonic friends (James Le Gros as Linda's intellectually overbearing ex-item Andy) and body politics all take on the curved inconvenience of traffic work as they approach their destinations.
Not to say that these threads are entirely successful. For every moment of plausible outrageous misfortune (like broken answering machines), there is a predicament like Linda's pregnancy that is rendered trivial in the grand scheme as most vignette-based movies tend to demonstrate. Better to bury yourself in your job than confront the situation head on, which may be true to the characters but also likely to make a viewer shrug.
Still, even if this doesn't progress as puckishly as Fast Times (which may be more a credit to Amy Heckerling) or as compellingly as Say Anything (which remains Crowe's calling card), Singles works both as a throwback to Generation X and an amiable portrait of the upwardly mobile dating scene. Even though Chris Cornell appears both with and without Soundgarden (you can even hear a demo version of what would be "Spoonman"), the film's shaggy dog quality is best summed up by the two songs from Minneapolis' own Paul Westerberg which propel the movie, "Waiting for Somebody" and "Dyslexic Heart." The latter song asks "Do I read you correctly, you need me directly? Help me with this part," and that's all you need to know in reacting to the way Crowe tugs on your flannel shirt.