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‘Say Anything’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 14, 1989

In his new movie "Say Anything," writer-director Cameron Crowe takes a revolutionary approach to his teen characters -- he treats them as if they were human beings.

"Say Anything" is one of those delightful surprises that hit you at the movies when you're least expecting them. At first glance, the picture looks like little more than a teen crush comedy. Lloyd (John Cusack) thinks Diane (Ione Skye) has smashing eyes, and even though she's the class valedictorian and his chief ambition is to become a pro kick-boxer, he dreams of taking her out. But by the time he actually makes the call and she accepts his invitation to a graduation party, you begin to notice something original in the material and perk up.

The first sign is Cusack himself. This young comic has his own skittering sense of timing. Arriving at Diane's house for their date, Lloyd meets her father (John Mahoney) at the front door, and the words spill out of his mouth like marbles in a nervous torrent. With some actors, you feel as if the mouth is working faster than the brain; with Cusack, it's just the opposite. He can't get his words out fast enough to keep up with his speeding thoughts.

Beyond kick-boxing, Lloyd doesn't know what he wants to do, but he knows that he doesn't know, and that he still has time to work it out. In his uncertainty about his future, Lloyd is like the Dustin Hoffman character in "The Graduate." But Cusack's Lloyd isn't overcome with ennui and despair. He seems entirely confident that he'll get his life together, and we don't doubt it either.

The families of both kids are lower middle class. Diane lives with her father, who runs a home for the elderly where she works after school. Lloyd lives with his older sister (Cusack's own sister, Joan) and her little boy. (His parents are in West Germany, where his father serves with the Army.) These aren't kids who while away their days at the malls.

Eccentric as he is in his basketball shoes and billowing topcoat, Lloyd has solidity about him, and a touch of poetic gallantry, and that's what Diane responds to. Escorting her home the morning after the party, he points out a broken bottle on the pavement and, brushing it aside with his high-top, he guides her around it, delicately, as if it were a land mine. He's a Galahad in Reeboks.

Later, Diane remembers this gesture as a turning point, but she was probably a goner long before that. In "River's Edge," Skye's face seemed a little vague, but here she's vivid and her out-of-the-ordinary beauty has a freshness that makes her character seem inexperienced and slightly confused by the world. Urged on by her father, who gives her pep talks about how special she is, she's excelled in her studies and, as a result, is awarded a fellowship to study for a year in England. Still, she feels as though she passed through her high school years without making contact with her classmates or having any of the normal schoolgirl experiences. Her only real relationship is with her father, and the two are so close that when they tell stories, they practically finish each other's sentences, like an old married couple. Crowe is careful in building this relationship to avoid the cliche's of the overzealous parent and allow for real feeling between them.

How do you describe a film as tender without making it sound icky? Frankly, I was amazed by a lot of what Crowe has done here, especially by the sustained richness and depth of the relationships. As a director, he hasn't a clue as to where the camera goes -- from shot to shot, you want to change seats to get the proper angle. But emotionally, he knows precisely where he needs to be. As the kids fall in love, Crowe stays with them, letting their feelings develop, sustaining their scenes together past the point where most directors would begin to move on.

As a result, we see precisely what each of these kids sees in the other, and, as they fall in love, in a sense we do too. When the pressures of an IRS investigation into her father's billing practices forces Diane to stop seeing Lloyd, the breakup is nearly unbearable -- for the audience. You can't wait for them to get back together.

It's hard to remember a recent love story -- maybe "Moonstruck" -- that's as involving as this one. This is not to suggest that the two movies are in the same league, but this is a teen movie that transcends its teen limitations, and I think adults will respond to it as fully as kids do. The cast is irresistibly charming, down to the bit parts by Lili Taylor and Amy Brooks as Lloyd's best friends. And Mahoney's formal stiffness and reserve work perfectly. As Diane's father, he looks as if he's labored hard to live up to Diane's expectations.

As it turns out, he hasn't. In its last third the movie turns dark, and for a while we're left to drift, wondering what's in store. However, the ending is so satisfying, so overwhelmingly right, that immediately we fall back into step. At the end of the film, we hear an ordinary sound that we've heard a thousand times. But when we hear it this time, after a seemingly endless wait, a kind of elation comes over us. In reality, it's merely a sound effect, but for Crowe it's the perfect note -- the sound of happiness.

"Say Anything" is rated PG-13 and contains some very discreet lovemaking.

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