Cameron Crowe's films are distinctive because he gives us characters that somehow straddle the line between offbeat quirk and total relatability. When you see a teenager touring the country while tricking Rolling Stone into thinking he's a qualified writer, your first inclination is disbelief, yet you know it could happen because that's how Crowe himself got his start. An energetic sports agent suffering a crisis of conscience who loses every client but a single football player who lets his mouth get in the way of his talent is just so crazy it works.
The characters of Say Anything... are no different. Its story concerns three people: a book-smart valedictorian who's sweet and friendly but was too busying studying to ever make friends, her protective father who enjoys more of a best friend relationship with his daughter, and the lad who attempts to woo the girl. Each of these characters, however, as well as the supporting actors who populate this world, has his own unique trait. Lloyd Dobler himself is often described as being so perfect that no guy can ever reach his level.
The film opens with Lloyd (John Cusack), Diane Court (Ione Skye) and all the other seniors graduating from high school. In her graduation speech, Diane has her first moment of connection with her peers when she admits that she's scared of what the future holds for her. Lloyd decides to ask her out before it's too late, and his gal friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) back him up. Both clearly are somewhat in love with their best bud, and it's not hard to see why: Cusack plays Lloyd with a dopey, clumsy charm. He has a propensity for incessant talking when he's nervous, and his big dream is to become a kickboxer because it would allow him to make a living without working within the corporate world. Lloyd espouses this political opinion with such a humble matter-of-factness that you can tell he genuinely believes it and is not simply putting on a show.
He's also unflinchingly sweet. When he calls Diane to ask her out, he gets her dad Jim (John Mahoney). He stumbles through an awkward conversation and sort of flubs, "She's pretty great, isn't she?" to which the dad can only smile and attest. When Lloyd eventually does get a hold of her and she agrees to come to a graduation party, she has to field questions from rude partygoers as to why she would come with Lloyd. Without hesitation, she says, "He made me laugh." Diane is that girl in high school that everyone noticed but was too afraid to approach. Coupled with her own obliviousness to the school around her, she's just as naïve and maladjusted as Lloyd; she's just smarter and not as awkward.
Lloyd and Diane's relationship must be one of the most romantic in all of cinema. When the two do eventually have sex, we are treated to an actual love scene. Not a sex scene, a love scene. The day after, Lloyd sends Diane a short note that expresses his feelings for her beyond getting in her pants, and Corey and D.C. are visibly moved. Diane is so taken with Lloyd's complete earnestness that the two grow close in no time, much to the dismay of Diane's father. Diane keeps nothing from Jim, and even admits that she and Lloyd had sex. The initially genial man who lavishes gifts upon his daughter and recognizes Lloyd as a harmless and sweet sap grows increasingly cold, until we discover that he's been defrauding the IRS and stealing from the residents of the nursing home he runs.
Jim's dark secret struck me as unnecessary the first time I watched Say Anything..., but after a few more watches and a few listens to the commentary, I see it as vital to the story. Watch from the beginning: Jim knows that the hammer will fall any day, but he keeps up the façade just long enough to ensure that his daughter receives her fellowship to England. He wants to keep everything together until he can get her out of his corrupt life, and the title takes an ironic undertone as we see what appeared to be an ideal father-child relationship crumble to reveal itself as a part of a giant lie. Re-watching the film gives me an understanding and a sympathy for Jim, despite the heinousness of ripping off a bunch of invalids.
The supporting characters are no less interesting. Jeremy Piven makes a great cameo as a wild, drunken fool, while Phillip Baker Hall's IRS agent creates a sinking feeling in your stomach when he tells Diane that her father is guilty in that deep, merciless voice of his. Lili Taylor, though, walks away with the entire film. Corey is neck-deep in a tumultuous relationship with a callous, cheating jerk named Joe, but her reactions to her despair never fail to make me laugh. Crowe frames every shot placed in her room to contain a picture of Joe or something he wrote. At the graduation party in the first act, she spends the entire night playing a myriad of songs, some remorseful, some angry. Lloyd notes to Joe, "She's written 65 songs...They're all about you. They're all about pain." Taylor has a way of getting big laughs effortlessly, but she also conveys deep pain and a thinly veiled longing for a person like Lloyd.
Everything about this film is perfect. It doesn't make grand proclamations about the human condition, nor does it feature any memorable direction -- it was Crowe's first time behind the camera, though his camerawork has never been the main draw of his work. However, the direction fits this simple but profound piece, and it captures the story perfectly. The actors are so natural that you stop viewing them as characters despite their quirks, and they become so much more memorable for it. When Lloyd gives his fantastic speech to Jim and his business partners about not wanting to work in any occupation that buys, sells or processes, he casually mentions that his army dad wants him to enlist, but he "just can't work for that corporation." It's a brilliant line, but Cusack delivers it so casually you'd just assume the Army was a corporation.
The actors only bolster Crowe's knowing script, one that contains its fair share of platitudes about love that are on-point enough to stave off cloying sentimentality. Honestly, Crowe must be the finest director of sentimental pictures since Frank Capra: neither is perfect, but they have a knack for capturing a fundamental optimism and hope even in the midst of darkness. The difference between the two is that Crowe's films are more intimate more -- as he says in his commentary for Almost Famous -- "shamelessly personal," and I just can't help but love them.