Say Anything... Review

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is living with his sister Constance (Joan Cusack, uncredited) and her young son Jason (Glenn Walker Harris Jr) in Seattle while his army parents are posted overseas. Lloyd goes to the local high school, and wants to ask out straight-A student and drop-dead gorgeous Diane Court (Ione Skye). Diane is “a brain trapped in the body of a game show hostess”, according to Lloyd’s platonic best friends, Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) who politely tell him he has no chance as “brains stick with brains”. But Lloyd goes ahead and asks her out, and to everyone’s surprise including his own, she accepts. Diane lives with her divorced father James (John Mahoney) and, having achieved all the goals she and he had set (leading up to a prestigious scholarship in Europe), she feels she’s missed out on fun and friendship. Her father, who runs an old-people’s home, is worried about his daughter’s increasing attraction to Lloyd, whom he feels has little direction in his life…

After writing the screenplays for the cult film Fast Times at Ridgemont High and 1984’s now-forgotten The Wild Life, Cameron Crowe was given the opportunity to direct a film from his own screenplay. Crowe’s goal, as he said to James L. Brooks, for whose company (Gracie Films) the film was made, was to take the clichés of the teen movie and make them real. After rave reviews but indifferent box office, Say Anything… became possibly the best film to go straight to video in the UK.

That sounds like damning with faint praise. “Straight to video” is a definite stigma for a film, and it’s fair to say that most cinema films that meet that fate are significantly flawed, if not out-and-out turkeys. On the video rental shelves, you will find some interesting misfires (Nicolas Roeg’s Cold Heaven) and, every now and again, a good film that slipped through the net: Eric Red’s Cohen and Tate springs to mind, as does Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers. And Say Anything…. The Brat Pack films of the mid 80s had come and gone, and 20th Century Fox were faced with a film with a first-time director and a cast of non-stars (Cusack was the best known, and had only marginally been a Bratpacker). American high school films tend not to do very well in the UK – even films which did something distinctive with the genre, like Rushmore, Election and to a lesser extent 10 Things I Hate About You – haven’t found the audience they deserve. So faced with a film with no obvious selling points, Fox denied Say Anything… a cinema release; it made its British premiere at your local video rental outlet.

Crowe’s strength was, and still is, as a writer, and the key to this film’s quality is its screenplay. This isn’t a one-sided film: both Lloyd and Diane are three-dimensional characters and you can’t help but warm to them. Another Crowe goal was to write a really good “girl” part, and he succeeded. Diane is a long way from the stereotyped girlfriend/bimbo roles that many young actresses have had to play in other films in the genre. Ione Skye (daughter of the singer Donovan) made an impression a couple of year’s earlier in the very different teen drama River’s Edge, but hasn’t had anything like as good a role as Diane Court since. It’s clear that Crowe, in this film as well as later ones, has considerable affection for his characters: even though James Court is the main obstacle to the Lloyd/Diane romance, he has his reasons…and even a subplot of his being investigated by the IRS for embezzlement doesn’t totally blacken him in our eyes. Lili Taylor, just before she became a mainstay of US independent movies, is delightful as Corey, all-wise advisor to Lloyd on his love life but also someone who attempts suicide due to unrequited love and writes 63 songs to the beloved one.

As a director, Crowe does a competent job. As with any first-timer working on a major studio film, he was paired with a highly experienced DP (Laszlo Kovacs in this case). Crowe has become slicker with the camera since then, though as he would readily admit, being flashy with a camera isn’t his game. Say Anything… is a vehicle for writer and actors. Sharp lines abound, and the cast take their opportunities to shine. (As well as Joan Cusack, another uncredited performer is Lois Chiles, who has a single scene as Diane’s mother.) For all that, the best-known scene in the film (reproduced on the DVD cover) has no dialogue: it’s the one where Lloyd stands outside Diane’s window with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”.

Say Anything… has been given a good Special Edition release by Fox. The transfer is anamorphic, in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. Visually, this isn’t a film that draws too much attention to itself: Kovacs’s photography is a warm-toned, solidly professional job that rightly doesn’t draw undue attention to itself. There’s very little wrong with the DVD transfer: colours solid, blacks strong, good shadow detail, with some minor aliasing that isn’t too distracting. I wouldn’t call this reference quality, but that’s only because the original materials don’t give your DVD player an opportunity to show off.

There are three sound mixes on the disc. On its original cinema release, Say Anything… had an analogue Dolby Stereo soundtrack, which is preserved on the DVD as Dolby Surround. There’s also a French dub, also in Dolby Surround. Finally, there’s a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1. All these are basically the same, as with many films of the time: mostly mono with the surround given over to music. The digital remix improves the dynamic range (benefitting the music) but little else. The subwoofer fills in the basslines of the songs, but doesn’t get much of a workout. There are twenty chapter stops.

The main extra is a commentary track. Crowe does do very good commentaries, usually in partnership with someone else: here, John Cusack and Ione Skye join in, but it’s mostly Crowe talking. There’s plenty to talk about: you get twenty minutes (with stills appearing on screen) before the film even starts! There’s a little too much thanking everyone in sight, but it’s an engaging commentary, and the three clearly have a considerable rapport. Don’t get your hopes up by the disclaimer after the copyright notices (“all views expressed in the interviews and commentaries are solely those of the participants” etc.): there’s some criticism by Crowe of Fox’s release strategy but it’s mild and inoffensive.

Fox Home Entertainment has packed enough extras into this single dual-layer disc to justify a double-disc release for other films. There are five alternate scenes (running 10:58), ten deleted scenes (13:11), and thirteen extended scenes (24:29). According to the box, the alternate scenes have an optional commentary, though I couldn’t access one, either via the menu or via the AUDIO button on my remote. All the extra footage is in 1.85:1 anamorphic, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound for the most part: a couple have no soundtrack, presumably for music-licensing reasons. The extended scenes (and one of the deleted scenes) play the footage that is in the final movie in black and white with the additional shots in colour, the soundtrack changing from Dolby Surround to mono respectively, and back again. This is particularly noticeable during the first extended scene, Diane’s graduation speech. (As an aside, the film looks quite effective in black and white, though obviously that would have been a commercial no-no in 1989: had Say Anything… been made a quarter-century earlier, it may well have been made in monochrome.) Considering how right “In Your Eyes” is in the boombox scene, it’s fascinating to watch Crowe and Cusack try out alternative songs. Much of this extra footage is well worth watching, with some sharp dialogue and nice touches, though you can see why they were left out to produce a tight 100 minutes.

The remaining extras are less interesting. The featurette is a full-frame job for TV, running 6:56, comprising clips from the film with interview soundbites. The two trailers are very similar; the fact that there is more than one hints that this wasn’t an easy film to sell. Oddly, while both play in Dolby Digital 2.0, only the second one produces any sound with the amplifier set to PCM. Eight TV spots, some emphasising romance, some comedy and some good reviews, complete the extras.

Say Anything… is a “little” film that has had to find its audience, particularly in the UK. It’s one of those films you discover, and you’ll be glad you did. In the wake of Crowe’s greater fame in recent years, it’s good to see this getting the special edition DVD treatment.

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