Singles June 20, 2016
Do a romantic movie wrong and you’ve got manipulative schmaltz on your hands. Do it right and you’ve got something healthily heartwarming and maybe even a bit perceptive. 1992’s Singles, an ensemble piece written and directed by Cameron Crowe, is of the latter camp. Using Seattle's grunge scene as its backdrop, it is a clear-eyed study of modern romance set in a desperate world, capturing the unpredictabilities and the jubilations of young love, never talking down to us and never being anything less than agreeable.
It centers on two couples. One of them appears to be made for each other; the other is mis-matched. The soulmates of the film are Steve (Campbell Scott) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), veritably good-hearted people who’ve been unlucky in love for most of their twenties. But once they first catch a glimpse of another at an Alice in Chains concert, something ignites that cannot be diminished.
Their opposites come in the form of Cliff (Matt Dillon) and Janet (Bridget Fonda), who epitomize the eternally depressing type of pair in which one party cares about the relationship much more than the other. That party is Janet, a waitress who’s so smitten with Cliff’s wannabe rock star personality that she’d do anything just to make him care about her a little more. A shame: she’s smart and she’s a catch, but doesn’t realize that she’s wasting her time with a guy who’ll never be impressed with what she has to offer.
And then there’s Debbie (Sheila Kelley), a lovable oddball who’s dying to find Mr. Right but is having minimal luck in her attempts.
Familiar material is something Singles wears on its sleeve shamelessly, but it’s designed with such likability that we aren’t much concerned that Before Sunrise and even Notting Hill played with similar formula with more stirring results. You can see the seedlings of TV’s Friends being planted within Singles’s effectually amusing exterior, its hip, attractive, and youthful characters fit with temperaments and hang-ups that ring with the charisma of a particularly investing sitcom grouping. It’s a relief that the film is insightful and easily humorous: then there’d be potential for TV asininity. But Crowe, hot off Say Anything … and on the road to Jerry Maguire, is more dedicated to shaping humanely sympathetic characters than to intensely focusing on romantics, and that’s why the movie has maintained its crispness. Its era summarizing soundtrack, featuring Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Smashing Pumpkins, certainly doesn’t hurt.
And the performances don’t either. Ranging from simplistically entertaining (Dillon), to quirkily sweet (Fonda, Kelley), and back to genuinely touching (Sedgwick, Scott), the contrasts in their tonal centers heighten the feeling that Singles, appealing as it is, is a lot like real life. A bold statement, sure: but wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where our plights were cinematic rather than unbearable? I think so. Singles conjoins naturalism and duende and finishes as a blithesome delicacy. B