'Singles' is at its best in following the ebb and flow of courtship

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Whoever said youth is too precious to be wasted on the young didn't really get it right; on the basis of "Singles" it would appear that depression, anomie, self-loathing and fear are entirely too precious to be wasted on the young -- they simply don't know how to enjoy them yet.

"Singles" examines the lives of a set of young men and women in Seattle, Wash., evidently a bastion of counterculture values in the far Northwest. Not only is it wet and rainy there, it's still the '60s.

The setting isn't exactly a commune, but almost: It's an apartment building, each of whose units has been rented by a twentysomething yearner after happiness. One has the impression that the building's rondelet of partnership has already spun through several rinse cycles and the survivors have more or less eased into the dry cycle of friendship; they support each other as militantly as a commando team, but look outward for gratification and permanence.

The primary players include a free-spirited rock musician who makes up in delusion what he lacks in talent, a waitress who has a crush on him, a young traffic engineer for the city government, and an environmental activist. Secondary victims are a TV producer and several handsome young layabouts who never bTC quite seem to do much except try to get dates, at which humble activity they always fail.

Cameron Crowe explored somethingteen culture in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" with a great deal of charm and astonishment: He showed us depths of feeling we never guessed were there. "Singles" is conceived as similarly anthropological in scope, covering the same generation a decade later. It suffers, of course, from problems of organization: The teens were all in high school, and that commonality of experience gave the piece a coherence that "Singles" lacks, because each of its subjects is flying in a subtly different direction.

Still, the movie isn't without its charms. Crowe's best trick is his ability to represent affairs of the heart with a sense of poignancy, as he showed in his film "Say Anything," a much admired teen romantic comedy. That tradition is somewhat evoked in the relationship between Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, the traffic guy and the environmentalist. Both fundamentally decent, both fundamentally hard-working and sincere and both somewhat cautious (having been burned before), they approach courtship in exactly the way they approach careers: carefully, with a great deal of planning.

The movie really captures the tidal flow of such things, the constant worrying about how much pressure to apply, how hard to hunt, the approach and withdrawal, the feigned indifference, the game aspects of it all. It's like watching two handsome young people play checkers with melting chocolate-covered cherries; the suspense is wondering if somebody will get into the back row before the pieces turn to goo.

The other surprise is how sexually conservative these young people seem to be; there are a few predators out there who want simply to rack up a good score, but for the most part everybody is cautious about giving too much away too soon, and once they've given it away, desperate to cling to the person they've given it to.

But the movie is infernally precious. Like "Husbands and Wives," it sometimes, though much more crudely, uses the device of the interview, in which the characters simply state their concerns baldly. Crowe also likes to throw ironic title cards in to set up the singles-ploy he's about to describe: "What took you so long?," for example, covers the dilemma of finding equipoise between coming on too hard and too slow. As Lou Grant once growled to one of Mary's brainless evocations of joy, "Yeah, cute. Cute as hell."

Less pleasing, too, is the Matt Dillon-Bridget Fonda coupling. He's the rocker, she's the waitress; who cares? Dillon, it seems to me, has never really stopped being a male model; his Cliff is all poses and foolishness, admittedly played more for laughs than pathos, but somehow less than engaging. Fonda is simply too good to be wasted in a subsidiary role such as this one. She's a star.

'Singles'

Starring Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick.

Directed by Cameron Crowe.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

** 1/2

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