Say Anything (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Say Anything is one of the best in a long line of teen romance movies, if not the best. Unlike many of its fellow genre entries, it is not filled with crude sex jokes, nudity, a lobotomized population, and poorly-defined subplots. And, while the broad strokes of the storyline are familiar, the details are what make this movie special -- smart, well-developed characters, believable situations, and a solid emotional investment for us in the film's people and circumstances. There's nothing exploitative or condescending in Say Anything's approach -- it tells it like it is, with subtle humor and carefully-modulated pathos, capturing the nuances of teenage love in a way that few other screen productions can boast.

Film maker Cameron Crowe has (to date) a perfect, albeit short, record. Although none of his projects could be considered groundbreaking, Crowe has proven himself to be an attentive student of human nature. This quality is evident in his insightful dialogue, intelligent storylines, and finely-tuned characters. Say Anything was Crowe's directorial debut (he broke into the Hollywood spotlight in 1982 as the screenwriter for Fast Times at Ridgemont High). It preceded 1992's Singles and 1996's Oscar-nominated Jerry Maguire. It's interesting to note that, with each film, Crowe's characters have grown progressively older (although not necessarily more mature).

Say Anything is essentially a three-character drama that transpires over the course of one eventful summer. By the end of the movie, not only have we gotten to know the protagonists, but we like them, understand them, and want them to succeed. Crowe's goal with each of his films is to give the audience a rich, rewarding cinematic experience that sends viewers home with that intangible "warm, fuzzy feeling." So, although not everything that happens during Say Anything is positive, the ending is upbeat.

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is an average high school senior. As Say Anything begins, he's getting ready for graduation, even though his future is wide open. His father wants him to join the army, but Lloyd doesn't think that's for him. He knows he doesn't want to buy, sell, or process anything, and the only activity he enjoys and is good at is kickboxing. The object of Lloyd's high school affection is Diane Court (Ione Skye), the class valedictorian. Lloyd has yearned for her from afar, but, after graduation, he finally works up the courage to ask her out. Much to his delight, she accepts, and he takes her to an all-night, post-graduation bash. While there, she learns a valuable lesson -- although everyone knows of her, no one actually knows her. She also discovers that she genuinely likes Lloyd, even though he and she have virtually nothing in common.

Diane's parents are divorced, and she lives with her father, James (John Mahoney), a businessman who runs a nursing home. He loves his daughter dearly, and enjoys showering her with expensive gifts. His high expectations also place a great deal of pressure on Diane. When she wins a prestigious fellowship to study in England, he's more excited than she is. He is also profoundly distrustful of Lloyd, especially when the young man describes his career aspirations as being "to spend as much time as possible with your daughter." Then, with the arrival of a pair of tax men at the door, James' entire world is turned upside down.

What makes Say Anything exceptional? The quality of the writing -- the intimacy of the link that Crowe's pen forges between us and Lloyd, and us and Diane. We feel that we know these characters. There were times when I saw myself in Lloyd; on other occasions, I identified with Diane. Crowe also takes care to present the small details that most films don't bother with -- like Lloyd pausing nervously before dialing the last digit of Diane's phone number as he prepares to ask her out on a first date.

Could there be anyone better suited to the role of Lloyd Dobler than the instantly-likable John Cusack? Cusack invests such sincerity in his portrayal of Lloyd that it's impossible not to root for him to get the girl. He's the classic underdog that we all think of ourselves as -- earnest, engaging, and impossible to resist because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. Ione Skye, who has made a career out of bearing her breasts as a loose girl (see Gas Food Lodging for a fine example) is entirely believable as a sweet, insecure genius who wants to learn to have fun. While there's no crackling sexual energy heating up the screen when Skye and Cusack are together, it's impossible to deny the low-key chemistry between them. Veteran actor John Mahoney gives a sense of multidimensionality to the role of the Dreaded Dad, who often becomes an icon of idiocy and nastiness in this kind of film. Here, although James isn't fond of Lloyd, he doesn't engage in all sorts of devious Machiavellian machinations to drive him away from Diane, nor does he ever turn into a heartless brute. Lili Taylor and Joan Cusack have small, supporting parts.

In one sense, Say Anything is a romantic comedy, but it's firmly grounded in reality (rather than the fantasy world of hearts and candies where many love stories exist). The film isn't overly-intellectual in its approach, but it is smart. It doesn't demand anything from its audience except a willingness for each viewer to turn over a couple of hours to these two characters and the special magic they weave while together. Say Anything hardly has a misstep, and, despite the passage of a decade since its release, it's just as hip today as it was at the time of its theatrical run.

Say Anything (United States, 1989)

Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: John Cusack, Ione Skye, John Mahoney, Lili Taylor, Amy Brooks, Joan Cusack
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Music: Anne Dudley, Richard Gibbs
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Ranked #89 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1