Apr 1, 2011

Bring Back Bridget Fonda: Singles [12]

Dir: Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe's second film as writer and director is a curious thing; it's so evocative of a specific time, yet it has ideas and moments that will resonate with any audience, even those born after the cultural context in which the film takes place had run its course. Nearly 20 years on from its release, and probably 15 years since I last saw it, Singles played not as dated but as nostalgic.

The film is set in an apartment complex - a set of 18 single units - in Seattle in the early 90's and charts the ups and downs of the relationships of the people living there. Among them are Steve (Campbell Scott), a yuppie with a looming important presentation; Janet (Bridget Fonda), a sweet girl so hopelessly in love with her musician boyfriend Cliff (Matt Dillon) that she's considering a breast enlargement so that he'll be more attracted to her and Debbie (Sheila Kelley), a brassy maneater who hires a director for her video dating ad. We also meet some people from outside the apartment complex, notably Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), who Steve meets at a concert and swiftly begins dating.

Singles is, like a lot of great films, about things that, in the grand scheme of events, are small, but which feel huge for the people living them. That's probably best expressed by Janet's story. Cameron Crowe's script paints her as a girl to whom the little things are terribly important; notably the moment that she realises that her insensitive boyfriend doesn't say 'bless you' when she sneezes. In other hands this might come off as twee but  Crowe writes her, and Bridget Fonda plays her, as a creature of simple sincerity, and rather than irksome she's adorable. At one point in the film, Campbell Scott's Steve says of a girl he's just met "If I had a personal conversation with God, would ask him to create this girl", and at a certain point I found it hard not to feel that about Janet. Obviously she looks like Bridget Fonda, which is a fine starting point, but what really makes her so lovable is the way she reacts at her lowest point. Even as she's deciding whether to have (totally unnecessary) breast surgery she sees that the surgeon accessing her, played by Bill Pullman, is feeling down, and she takes time to be kind and funny and sweet to him even at that moment. I love Janet, and I love Bridget Fonda's performance because you believe in that fundamental goodness she gives the character.

Fonda is not alone though, all the performances are excellent. In the lead Campbell Scott is quietly brilliant as Steve, who seems to mask real insecurity with outward self confidence, but, for the most part, do it well enough that people don't see the mask. It's a testament to how fine an actor Scott is that he's able to communicate this to the audience while credibly not letting other characters in. Along with Crowe he also crafts a guy who is desperate for connection, in a way that feels much more real to me now than when I last saw Singles aged 15. It's both sad and funny how recognisable Steve is. Matt Dillon has done a lot of nice work over the years, but when somebody says his name to me the first thing that always comes to mind is Cliff Poncier; stuck up singer of middling grunge band Citizen Dick (who are filled out by members of Pearl Jam). He's incredibly slappable in the role, largely because the girlfriend he's so inattentive to is the adorable Janet, but again, though it's a smallish part, Cliff isn't a caricature, Crowe's script begins, late in the day, to peel back this guy's layers and show the slow process of his realisation of how he's behaved, and of course up to that point Cliff's always good for a laugh, especially when he's talking about the title of his band's signature song 'Touch me I'm Dick' to a journalist played by Crowe.

The film's women fare slightly less well, with Kyra Sedgwick (another in this films veritable parade of underrated actors) has perhaps the least defined character, which is odd given that she's really the female lead, Crowe's written an independent 90's woman here, who isn't sure if she wants commitment, or even a relationship, when she falls into something serious with Steve, but she's not very specific, feeling more of a type than a really rounded character. Her flipside is Debbie; Sheila Kelley's hilarious, orange haired, man hungry caricature. She's a cartoon, but Kelley plays the cartoon to perfection, never more so than in her dating video, and while Debbie isn't terribly real she's certainly a good deal of fun.

One of the defining features of all of Crowe's movies is the use of music (from the sublime moment with In Your Eyes in Say Anything to the ridiculous road trip soundtrack in Elizabethtown). Singles doesn't have a single iconic musical moment, but weaves the Seattle grunge scene through the movie as the characters experience it; as the soundtrack of their lives. It meant little to me last time I saw the film, because music only became a big part of my life in my 20's, but on this viewing it leaped out at me how the music - both the songs and the score by Paul Westerberg - becomes a character, tying the people and the setting together. If you're informed about the scene there are also a lot of treats scattered through the film in the form of cameos from the aforementioned Pearl Jam, to Alice in Chains playing in a dingy club, to Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden) as a friend of Cliff's and probably more I didn't spot. Speaking, by the way, of cameos, Singles is packed with 'it's that guy' moments, all of which are fun; Paul Giamatti has one line, Jeremy Piven and Eric Stoltz have one scene each, Tim Burton plays the director of Debbie's dating video and Bill Pullman is notable as Janet's smitten plastic surgeon.

The main thing I really liked about Singles this time was the tone. It's reflective, but never melancholy. It's funny, but never knockabout or silly. It's serious, but never solemn. The dialogue, in typical Crowe style, is specific, smart, sharp and witty (Janet: "People need people, Steve. It has nothing to do with sex. OK, maybe 40 percent. 60 percent. Forget it.") I also like its untidiness, Crowe isn't afraid to let the loose ends hang as the credits roll, we get a sense of where things might go, but this isn't a biography, it's a glimpse of a few months in a few people's lives, and that means that things aren't neat, because things aren't over. It would be interesting, I think, to revisit these characters, to find out who they are in their mid 40's, whether they still know each other, if Janet's still so sweet, if Cliff's still making music, to me, that would be far more interesting than Thor 2, or Ice Age 4.

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