This review has been a long time coming. Oddly so, as I love Say Anything, but that turned out to be the problem. You see, I started watching it a few weeks ago – but then I stopped it right in the middle, fully intending to come back to it by the end of the day. Instead, I found myself avoiding it altogether and in the end it took me two weeks to build up the nerve to come back to it and finally finish the film. Not because I wasn’t enjoying the movie – as I said, I really love this movie. I just couldn’t bear to watch Diane dump Lloyd in the car.
Yes, I’ve seen this movie about a million times and, yes, I know that Diane finally comes back. But such is the quality of this film that I honestly cannot bear to watch Diane, against her will, break Lloyd’s heart. I don’t mind watching Buttercup appear to abandon Wesley for Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, I don’t mind watching Cat’s heart break in Mystic Pizza when she realises that she’s been sleeping with a middle aged douche – but I honestly just cannot watch that scene in Lloyd’s car. That’s how good this movie is. So when I finally did come back to Say Anything, I fast forwarded through that bit. Apologies for the lack of professionalism but for God’s sake, I am also a human
Say Anything represents to me just how brilliant the 80s were for teen movies, and why. As much as I love the oeuvre of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe’s film really takes the genre to another level, after having clearly learnt a thing or two from the original master. As in Hughes’ film, Crowe smuggles in a very serious adult plot amidst all the teen romance (he did the same in Fast Times at Ridgemont High with Stacy having to get an abortion) and, also as in Hughes’ films, we are seeing everything from the kids’ point of view, meaning school is a drag and parents are stupid. The male lead is a bit of a dorky misfit and there is the prominent use of an 80s song. So far, so typical. But there is nothing kitsch or pop about Say Anything, no characters acting completely unrealistically, no easy endings. The whole film is wrapped up in such a sheen of quality yet at the same time is utterly tender and real.
A lot of this is down to the brilliant performances from the almost unknown leads, Jon Cusak and Ione Skye who were never so good again, but also from Crowe’s superlative script, with its instantly memorable but never false lines like “I’m looking for a dare to be great situation” or “I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen”, and realistic dialogue such as “So you’re saying you’re monumentally busy?” “Well, not monumentally” and “I wrote 63 songs about Joe and I’m going to play them all tonight.” “Joe’s here.” “Well you don’t have to be so dramatic about it.”
He, too, was never to repeat his brilliance, going on to make the rather dreary Almost Famous and the all-gloss-no-heart Jerry Maguire.
Cusak and Skye are so delightful together in this I’ve always regretted that they didn’t make a movie together. His jittery offbeat handsomeness works so well as Lloyd Dobler – the Holden Caulfield with loving heart – that it’s amazing to think the part wasn’t written for him. Similarly, Skye seems made for the part of Diane Court, “a brain, trapped in the body of a gameshow host.” Crowe knows that high school delineations aren’t as tidy as Hughes often made them in his films. Lloyd is a bit of a weird outsider, but he’s also adored by everyone in his high school, even horrible fratty Jeremy Piven (“YOU MUST CHILL!”) who appears here in the first of several movies with Cusak (I’m not sure if Cusak and Piven’s friendship makes me like Piven more or Cusak less.) Diane is breathtakingly beautiful but a complete nerd (I especially love her nerdiness when she goes to the detective, trying to help her father, telling him how she dressed up in order to impress him.) But even those genre bending summations don’t define them and both of them can move through other groups, with Lloyd briefly hanging out with the jocks in the parking lot and Diane having fun at a high school party. It’s impossible not to feel utterly fizzy and charmed at the end of their first date, and the sex scene between them is quite possibly the most romantic lost virginity scene ever. Titanic wishes it could have done it as well as Say Anything. When Diane comes back to Lloyd at the boxing gym, the tenderness between them is completely palpable.
“Are you here ‘cause you need someone or ‘cause you need me?” asks a miserable looking Lloyd, his nose bleeding. “Ah, you know, I don’t care,” he says, holding her tight. As in most 80s films, the love story is primarily told from the man’s point of view and has the audience rooting for him to get the woman back (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.) But Diane is not simply an idealised ice queen who messes him around. She’s awkward and goofy and she makes mistakes and we feel her pain, too, when she feels she has to break up with Lloyd even though she loves him. This is a film that really makes you feel everything, from the giddiness of a successful first date to the heartbreak of losing the one you love, and the only time Crowe succumbs to cliché is when he has Diane break up with Lloyd in the rain. Even the big 80s song moment feels perfectly integrated into the film. Of course Lloyd would stand outside Diane’s house playing the song that was on the radio when the slept together – of course he would. This feels a lot more naturalistic than, say, the kids in The Breakfast Club spontaneously dancing on their desks.
The kids, too, seem real, from Mike, the weirdo who passes out in the bathroom (played, bizarrely, by Barbra Streisand and Elliot Gould’s son) to Vahlere the party host (no 80s teen movie can be complete without Eric Stoltz) to Joe, the pretty dimbulb heartbreaker. Special shout out to the girl who apparently recently discovered but doesn’t quite understand the use of sark marks (“How did that ‘HAPPEN’?”) But of course, the kids who really contribute to the depth of the film are Corey and DC, Lloyd’s delightful and delightfully platonic female friends (contrary to what Harry and Sally claim, men and women can be friends.) Corey, in particular, of course, played by the peerless Lili Taylor, who – as the best kind of teenage girls are – is both wonderfully wise and fabulously silly, and her songs about Joe are, in my opinion, a better musical moment in the film than the whole Peter Gabriel moment. She also gets to voice what are really the two messages of the film: “The world is full of guys. Be a man! Don’t be a guy,” she tells him, summing up what separates him from the boys at school. But it’s her comment, “I’m a good person, Lloyd, but you’re a great person,” that really is the heart of the film. Everyone in the film is good, including Diane’s father and Lloyd’s sister. But for whatever reason, they’ve lost sight of something important whereas Lloyd never does. At the beginning of the film when he tells Mr Court that all he wants to do is spend time with Diane and maybe become a professional kickboxer, it sounds absurd. But by the end, it looks like he has the best values of all of them. He does what he truly loves and that’s why he’s great.
The familial relationships are the nuts and bolts of the film. It feels completely right that a boy as eccentric and mature as Lloyd would be an army brat who lives with her sister while his parents live in Germany. Similarly, it makes total sense that a shy, precocious mouse like Diane would have a slightly too close and adoring relationship with her father, who she lives with on her own after having chosen him over her mother. John Mahoney is a complete dream in this part, giving it the kind of complexity and honesty that one rarely sees accorded to adult roles in teen films. His scene in the bathtub is a punch to the stomach, allowing the audience to watch a man mentally and emotionally unspool. It is thanks to Mahoney’s acting that Mr Court is never just the mean dad who is trying to come in between Diane and Lloyd – there is always, clearly, more to him and it’s a pleasure when he arrives onscreen. One can only thank heavens that Frasier finally gave this fine actor a chance to shine. Otherwise, he would have just been this man who played amazing but smallish roles in Say Anything and Moonstruck and we all would have wondered who he was and why didn’t he do more. (Incidentally, I love that Bebe Neuwirth pops up as the school’s careers counsellor in this film, anticipating her longrunning role as Mahoney’s ex-daughter-in-law in Frasier.)
Perhaps the true sign of the movie’s brilliance is that when it film ends – suddenly, brilliantly – I always want to reach into the screen and turn the lights back on. I want to know what happens when they go to England, I want to know what happens to them, I want to stay with them for longer – and how many characters can you say that about? Say Anything is a film that looks like a teen comedy but has more depth and honest emotion than most of the portentous sagas that win Oscars. It is a film with gentle comedy and real heart, smart dialogue and effortless tenderness. This is a real classic, in all senses of the word. In our hearts, we’re all Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court.
Next week: Parenthood