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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Say Anything’ Says Some Things Sweetly

Times Film Critic

Trust Cameron Crowe, writer of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” to dig among the slag heaps of an almost mined-out genre--the teen-age movie--and come up with one of the nicest of the species, a film of warmth, insight, humor and surprising originality. “Say Anything” (citywide), which marks writer Crowe’s first direction, isn’t perfect, but when it’s good, which is every moment John Cusack is on screen, it’s a living joy. And when it’s not-so-good--earthbound and not inventive enough--it still almost single-handedly redeems the breed.

Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler is something special among his fellow 18- and 19-year-olds just graduating from high school. He is trustworthy, the one you would stick with being “keymaster"--the straight, stern, sober keeper of all car keys--at the graduation party blowout. He cares. He is, in his own diffident way, cool. He doesn’t just like girls; two of the niftiest girls from his class (Lili Taylor and Amy Brooks) are his best friends and life advisers. And when Lloyd falls in love, as he has with the unattainable Diane Court, it’s with the pure, single-minded grip of a snapping turtle.

For some of these reasons but especially the last, Lloyd is not the sort of boy that a fiercely protective father such as nursing-home owner James Court (John Mahoney) might cotton to. Diane Court (Ione Skye), biochemistry major, valedictorian, winner of a scholarship that will take her to England in the fall, is a brain, a beauty and the light of her divorced father’s life.

Lloyd lives in a crackerbox apartment with his abandoned-and-now-divorced sister (wonderful, real-life sister Joan Cusack) and her little boy. Then in an act of bravery bordering on the heroic, or the clinically insane, Lloyd asks Diane to their graduation-night party. And, in an exactly similar vein, she accepts.

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It’s as though Crowe really understood those hundreds of stories about models or actresses or spectacularly pretty woman who never went out during high school, simply because boys were afraid they were unapproachable.

Diane, groomed from infancy as a high achiever, also understands that she’s been marked as a “priss.” What she finds in Lloyd, during their first, hilarious, beautifully observed date, is a funny, tender, unquenchable optimist who is at the same time her passport to the real world.

To the astonishment of everyone, they begin dating, in sequences that are the heart and the high point of the movie. And, even considering the remarkably open and close level of communication between father and daughter, it becomes a relationship that he cannot understand.

Lloyd doesn’t give adults the glib answers they want to hear about his college plans, for example, and beyond. If he can avoid the military life that his career-Army father has in mind for him, he would like to become a champion kick-boxer, “the sport of the future.” In the meantime, Lloyd knows emphatically that for a career he does not want to buy, sell or process anything. It’s sentences like that that make Mr. Court’s eyes get very wide indeed.

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Crowe, working here for executive producer James L. Brooks and producer Polly Platt, has taken the time with character details that have become a hallmark of Brooks’ other Gracie Films such as “Big.” The shadings within Court’s character, the over-possessive father, the nurturing owner of an immaculate nursing home, are exceptionally interesting, and Mahoney plays him to the end with a beautifully calibrated touch.

Crowe wants us to see what’s wonderful about Lloyd, and he and Cusack make it so easy. But although as a writer Crowe has struggled with Diane, she doesn’t quite leap off the page in 3-D the way Lloyd does, or, for that matter, Lloyd’s great, musician-confidante Corey, brought to brash irrepressible life by Lili Taylor. Diane remains sweet but unarresting, and nothing about Skye’s performance or the writing suggests the intellect that Diane must have.

A few times Crowe simply short-changes us: after their first night together, Lloyd writes a letter that any girl (any woman of any age) would kill to get. We need to see her face when she reads it, but the action gets glossed over and missed.

The second time it’s deliberate: After a falling-out, Lloyd turns up at dawn to serenade her, 1980s-style. If there is a more poignant image than Lloyd through Laszlo Kovac’s lenses, standing doggedly in the early morning, holding his rig above his head, playing Peter Gabriel’s soaring “In Your Eyes,” for his unseen love, it’s hard to think what it might be. Withholding her reaction this time is a purposeful cruelty to the audience; it leaves us as dazed as Lloyd.

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But having set us up with quick, light, deft dialogue and action that insures that we will cherish Lloyd for his shining optimism, his damn-fool, heartbreaking singularity, Crowe abandons him at the close.

What gave “The Graduate” its ticking bomb quality was that last shot that, clearly as “Rain Man,” said “Uh oh.” Crowe leaves that awful consideration out here, and we need it. Along with her father, the audience has been so preoccupied with what’s best for the exquisite Diane that no one has quite considered Lloyd’s future, in two years, or in 10.

What will happen when one day Diane grows fretful under his selfless, ceaseless adoration. When she needs to talk about her work. When his reiterated “I love you” loses its magic and begins to irritate her, as surely as a finger, rubbing tenderly back and forth across the same soft wrist.

Uh oh.

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‘SAY ANYTHING’

A 20th Century Fox Film Corp. release of a Gracie Films production. Executive producer James L. Brooks. Producer Polly Platt. Co-producer Richard Marks. Camera Laszlo Kovacs. Production design Mark Mansbridge. Editor Richard Marks. Music Richard Gibbs, Anne Dudley; additional music Nancy Wilson. Costumes Jane Ruhm. Set decorator Joe Mitchell. Sound Art Rochester. With John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Jeremy Piven, Patrick O’Neill, Gregory Sporleder, John Green, Jr., Eric Stoltz. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children younger than 13).


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