Singles at 30: Examining Cameron Crowe's Anxious Gen X Misfire

Movies Features Cameron Crowe
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<i>Singles</i> at 30: Examining Cameron Crowe's Anxious Gen X Misfire

When Cameron Crowe’s Singles was released in September 1992, Richard Linklater’s first major film had just left theaters and Reality Bites was still a year and a half off. The “chatty young people” indie boom of the 1990s hadn’t yet resulted in easy-to-confuse titles to vaguely Woody Allen-ish comedies like Sleep with Me, Naked in New York, Kicking and Screaming or Walking and Talking. On television, Living Single was a year away, Friends was two and Seinfeld wasn’t yet a Thursday-night juggernaut. So before you even get to the movie’s on-trend Seattle setting and small acting parts for members of Pearl Jam, Singles had some novelty just as a movie about (white) Generation Xers doing Gen-X things: Working crummy jobs, listening to grunge, going to bed together and obsessing over social minutiae.

Despite that important baby-step in the development of Generation X on screen, it would be a stretch to say that Singles has aged particularly well at 30—older now, of course, than most of its characters were when it was released. Crowe’s previous movie, Say Anything, is justifiably more beloved (it’s nearly perfect, in fact), while his next, Jerry Maguire, remains his signature smash. Reality Bites wasn’t any bigger of a hit, but it’s a stronger character-type reference point by far. Another later Gen-X chatfest, Clerks, is still inspiring sequels. In terms of that deluge of “people dating in cities” sitcoms that followed it, Singles is probably closer to Caroline in the City than Friends, at least in terms of fanbase size.

This is a little surprising, considering how much luck Crowe has had filling in the timeline of adolescent-to-adult development. Almost Famous and Say Anything cover the teenage-to-college years pretty well, and Jerry Maguire is a grown-up rom-com about a thirtysomething professional. Why didn’t Crowe make much of a mark on the years in between?

Some if it is the accident of casting. No one in Singles is especially bad, most of the cast is likable and a few of them might inspire some IMDb surfing as you try to figure out why they weren’t in more movies (it turns out Sheila Kelley has been in plenty, I just didn’t recognize her). But the ensemble chemistry doesn’t fizz; there isn’t a Winona Ryder generational figurehead, a Janeane Garofalo-level breakout or anyone as memorably loathsome (or, fine, as handsome and magnetic) as Ethan Hawke’s Troy, all from Reality Bites. Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, by contrast, are well-matched as a couple of neurotic professionals who have grown weary of the big search for love, and that might be the problem. They’re so compatible, even-tempered and reasonable that they don’t really register as twentysomething fuckups, even in a movie-ish way. They feel a bit like tourists in any milieu they share with Matt Dillon’s Cliff, a doofus grunge musician and sort of proto-Joey Tribbiani, whom Crowe affords his trademark grace: He’s never as good a boyfriend as Janet (Bridget Fonda) wants, while never being quite as insensitive a lunkhead as he might appear.

Fonda’s Janet is the closest the movie has to a plucky heroine, and she operates at a slight remove. Her He’s Just Not That Into You mooning over Cliff leads her to consider a boob job, but mostly she’s on a journey to a kind of singleton zen, so she can impart some wisdom to her ex-boyfriend and current pal Steve (Scott). She’s the de facto Crowe heroine because she seems most adept at talking things out. And if there’s something the movie does well—so well, in fact, in its closing moment that it makes large swaths of the movie feel like a missed opportunity—it’s capitalize on a generation addicted to what one Say Anything character described as “that nervous talking thing.”

As Crowe’s camera travels around the Seattle skyline, a cacophony of anonymous, overlapping twentysomething voices builds, contradicting Dillion and Fonda’s final exchange, about their circuitous path through the dating scene, and back to each other: “Does everybody go through this?” “No, I think it’s just us.” Much of the rest of Singles hovers between these all-out neuroses and a gentler sense of melancholy.

It’s hard to blame Crowe for Singles not quite connecting, especially back then. Anxieties as expressed by youngish onscreen city-dwellers were facing a transition in 1992, and a movie like Singles captured something that was in the air about the lives of ostensible grown-ups who were having more trouble getting their shit together than previous generations. That sensibility, though, would flourish and become lighter, more aspirational, on television. In the meantime, it was out of place amidst other ’90s movies about young professionals finding their way.

Just a month or so before Singles, Fonda herself starred in one with Single White Female, a thriller about the fear that if you don’t settle down with a guy from Wings, you’ll be forced to live with someone who can’t stop copping your style. The very fact that Alli (Fonda) is single in the first place is treated as a kind of freak accident: After discovering infidelity from her boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), Alli is forced to hastily seek a roommate in order to afford her spacious apartment, which brings Hedra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) into her life after a parade of weirdos. It’s hard not to read her eventual reunion with Sam as a kind of surrender; much like Janet and Cliff in Singles, there’s no real point where they become a particularly charming couple. In both cases, Fonda seems faintly terrified of the alternative to coupledom, no matter how compromised—and both movies wind up giving her plenty of reason for those fears, while seeming to understand that neither Cliff nor Sam are exactly rom-com dream men.

In some ways, Singles and Single White Female exhibit different symptoms of the same disease: Expectations of Reagan-era yupward mobility lingering in the Bush echo-‘80s. Single White Female more immediately fits with its fellow summer-of-’92 hit Unlawful Entry, where a couple’s domestic bliss is cracked by violent crime, then shattered by the stalker cop who’s supposed to keep them safe, and 1990’s Pacific Heights, where a tenant from hell threatens a landlord couple, already just barely hanging on financially. These stories, which seem like next-gen takes on Fatal Attraction, are all variations of interlopers appearing to destroy an already-tenuous grip on a successful urban lifestyle.

Singles doesn’t focus on a threat of violence in the same way, but its characters are similarly afraid of falling behind, with romance in place of social status or financial solvency. The single characters fixate on little signs and symbols: The garage door opener Sedgwick’s Linda considers a token of loyalty; Janet’s desire for a man who at least has the decency to say “bless you” when she sneezes. So even though no one stalks, kills or gives unsolicited blowjobs in Singles—a pretty chaste movie about serial dating— it’s nearly as real-estate-centric as Single White Female or Pacific Heights, with multiple characters connected as neighbors in their homey Seattle apartment building.

One comic vignette does trade on roommate drama, but for the most part these homes remain uninvaded, with messes that can be cleaned up. The upsetting disruption Crowe pictures instead is more professional, and hints at the hotshots (and their projects) brought low that he would focus on in later movies like Jerry Maguire and Elizabethtown. In Singles, the exacting Scott character has a major transportation plan that gets rejected, sending him into a personal spiral leading to a garbage-strewn apartment. Though he’s very much the kind of buttoned-up, dorky guy who would be hackily compared to a serial killer by characters in a more contemporary comedy, his mental anguish doesn’t even have much to do with earning a basic livelihood. He just needs a gentle pep talk from Janet and the eventual return of his girlfriend. His embarrassing Failure to Yup isn’t just missing literal blood and guts; it doesn’t have much metaphorical gutting, either.

Maybe that’s too much to ask for a rom-com. The lack of resulting bloodshed should at least make Singles feel like a refreshingly warm take on this early-’90s iteration of adulting anxiety. At times, it is; no Crowe movie is without its sweet moments of humanity (and this one is more assured than his patchier recent efforts). He might also have been ill-suited for this particular era. Crowe himself is a Baby Boomer, born in 1957—is that why the women in Singles all have ‘50s names like Linda and Janet?—and while he successfully translated his past youth-culture precocity into teen romance and, later, wide-eyed coming-of-age stories, his interest in Gen-X seems guided more by some then-cool music than a social shift. Maybe Gen-X was one of those boondoggle projects for Crowe, who was ultimately unable to either relax into the indie irreverence of Noah Baumbach and Richard Linklater—or unleash the real-estate-based killing spree lurking just below the surface.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.