Singles, the appealing and long-overdue new comedy from Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…), has the comfortable quality of those unplanned nights when you find yourself with a bunch of people in someone’s apartment and just talk for hours. Almost anecdotal in structure, the movie feels like a series of sketches. Sometimes that can be a problem, but not with Crowe, whose specialty is the telling bit of dialogue, the gesture that expresses more than a whole scene of exposition. Only Crowe could write a film in which a major plot point turns on a character’s failure to say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. (And only Crowe would go on to distinguish between “Bless you” and “Gesundheit.”)
We’re in Seattle, where twentysomethings work at precise, tidy jobs by day and stop off at the local club to catch Soundgarden by night. We meet Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) and Steve (Campbell Scott), both coming off bad relationships. Steve spots Linda at the dance club and makes a move, swearing that he’s not phony and doesn’t have an “act.” Linda sizes him up and remarks, “(A) You have an act; (B) Not having an act is your act.” But she could be interested. He’s definitely interested.
Steve, it turns out, lives in the same apartment complex as Cliff (Matt Dillon), who fronts the local band Citizen Dick, and Janet (Bridget Fonda), who’s in love with Cliff. Maybe. A comically self-absorbed lunk with a goatee and a terminally serene expression, Cliff seems more fascinated by a TV special about the mating habits of bees than by the mating habits of people. Briefly, Janet considers getting breast implants to strike some kind of spark with Cliff, and in one of the movie’s best moments she asks him straight out, “Are my breasts too small for you?” After a bit of hemming and hawing, he gives the perfect Cliff answer.
A weakness of many hip-youth movies is that everyone somehow comes up with the right thing to say. That happens here a lot, but Crowe puts a realistic spin on it: He has the characters stop for a moment, surprised that they actually didn’t say something stupid. Crowe assembles Singles in a pleasantly casual way, with people pairing off and separating according to what they feel, not because the plot demands it. He brings out the tender goofiness in the actors (Dillon might even outdo his work in Drugstore Cowboy, and Fonda gives yet another effortlessly charming performance), crafting dialogue and scenes that feel utterly spontaneous.
Also happily spontaneous. For the most part, Singles avoids real pain. A tragedy near the middle of the movie has little dramatic weight; Crowe takes care of it in one or two scenes and then promptly forgets about it. Romances come to an end and develop seamlessly into friendships, without bitterness. There’s really no tension except in small touches, such as when Janet’s breast-implant doctor (Bill Pullman) delicately suggests that if Cliff doesn’t like her breasts, she should find someone who does (he stops short of clearing his throat and pointing to himself, but she gets the point). The way she lets him down, and the way he nonchalantly backs off, ring absolutely true. But the element of sexual harassment in the scene (is it really the doctor’s place to hit on Janet, however gently?) goes unexplored.
But nobody said a Cameron Crowe film had to be Tension City, and Singles is one of the most accomplished and purely enjoyable movies of the year. Crowe has created a smart, rumpled world where real people relate to each other about real feelings, using real words. That’s not something to sneeze at (gesundheit).