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Movie Reviews : ‘Singles’ Scene: The Young and the Lovelorn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Singles” (citywide) is an enjoyably fluky comedy about lovelorn twentysomethings in Seattle. Cameron Crowe, the writer-director, is 34, still close enough to his characters to connect with them and feel affection for their foibles. Most of the current youth comedies are cartoonish and overblown but “Singles” is singularly sweet. It’s a companionable movie about companionship.

Most of the characters in the film live in the same Seattle apartment building. Steve (Campbell Scott) is a city engineer specializing in traffic control; Cliff (Matt Dillon) is the lead guitarist in a fifth-rate rock group; Janet (Bridget Fonda), a waitress and would-be architect, is smitten with Cliff; Debbie (Sheila Kelley) schemes to come up with the perfect dating-service tape that will land her the perfect guy. There’s also Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), an environmentalist who lives across town and ever so tentatively edges into a relationship with Steve. (It’s a perfect touch that Linda drives a gas guzzler.)

Crowe sets up the film (rated PG-13) as a kind of romantic roundelay, with title cards to separate the sequences. The characters pair off, talk to the camera, talk to themselves. They’re footloose romantics furtively seeking lovemates. Their self-centeredness is wildly comic because they take their miseries so seriously. Their approach-avoidance love duets are so charged with mixed messages that, for most of the film, everyone seems to be crooning in code.

One of the jests in the material is how adept these people are at emotionally supporting each other without in any way being able to help themselves. Most of them have been burned by other lovers in the past and they’ve gotten to the point where they look at potential partners with an almost clinical detachment. (The joke is that, of course, detachment is impossible.) In the film’s opening sequence, we see Linda getting two-timed by a Lothario with a Spanish accent. Sometime later, Steve spots her at a rock concert and comes on to her by declaring that, in effect, he’s not coming on to her. Linda can’t see what we do in Steve--she shoots him down. She doesn’t recognize until later that Steve’s guilelessness really isn’t an act. (When he tries for romantic gamesmanship he mangles his own good will.)

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It’s fitting that Steve’s work project is a supertrain that would replace commuter driving in downtown Seattle. He can’t understand why people might want to be alone in their own cars. He wants everyone to be happy together, and so when things with Linda sour he’s reduced to a mumbling, unshaven hermit in his dank one-bedroom apartment. Steve is so ardent about love that when his ideals are wrecked he turns almost instantaneously into a basket case.

Janet is equally ardent about love, which is why she and Steve are soulmates (but not lovers). She’s as blind to Cliff’s grungy grumpiness as Cliff is deaf to the awfulness of his own music. Her true-blue spunk is more than Cliff deserves, and yet it’s too much. She’s so eager to please him that she almost goes ahead with breast enlargement surgery that even the surgeon (Bill Pullman) doesn’t want to perform. (The scene where he talks her out of it is a beauty.)

Janet’s passion for Cliff has the odd effect of domesticating him, which is probably why he fights off his feelings for her. He doesn’t want to be paired with any one woman because it wouldn’t fit his rocker dude image. Scraggly and bearded, with a Neanderthal lope and grunt, Cliff likes to stretch out on Jimi Hendrix’s grave and he likes to jam with his buddies. He’s cool in a preconscious sort of way: He’s so unaware of the amenities of life that he’s almost brain-dead. Is this what bohemianism in the ‘90s will be like?

Crowe captures the ways kids in their 20s talk and hang out together and flirt. It’s the first safe-sex generation--there’s even a safe-sex party where you get to dress up as your favorite contraceptive. Crowe understands the haphazardness of his characters’ raging emotions and he pays tribute by giving his film a haphazard, catch-as-catch-can structure. Scenes play like blackout sketches; the cappers are often squiggly bits of business taking place in the corner of the frame (like the moment when Steve and Linda try to have a serious conversation in a bistro while the couple next to them grope each other).

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There’s a genial untidiness about “Singles,” but it’s unified by Crowe’s affection for his characters, and by the terrific Paul Westerberg music track, which plays like a pulse-beat to these people’s lives. Crowe’s affection for his actors is part of the package too, and they respond with the kind of winning ensemble work that turns every scene into a spirited jamboree. “Singles” is a bright and beautiful piffle about love American-style, junior division.

‘Singles’

Bridget Fonda: Janet Livermore

Campbell Scott: Steve Dunne

Kyra Sedgwick: Linda Powell

A Warner Bros. release of an Atkinson/Knickerbocker Films production. Director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe. Producers Crowe, Richard Hashimoto. Executive producer Art Linson. Cinematographer Ueli Steiger. Editor Richard Chew. Costumes Jane Ruhm. Music Paul Westerberg. Production design Stephen Lineweaver. Art director Mark Haack. Set designer Cosmas Demetriou. Set decorator Clay Griffith. Sound Art Rochester. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.


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