Warning: This article contains mild spoilers, so read at your own discretion.
A young woman sleeps in her home, and music is heard outside. The man she just dumped stands outside, with his hands holding a boombox, his arms outstretched. A great love song blares out of the boombox, and the young man just stares out, hoping for that second chance of redemption. No dialogue is said, or even necessary.
While it may be the iconic moment of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything…, it’s surprisingly just one of many that makes this romantic dramedy an extraordinary film. It had John Cusack, Ione Skye and John Mahoney delivering some of their best film work, and Crowe had a brilliant directing debut after writing two films in the 1980s (most notably the 1982 classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High). It’s also one of those rare films that will just make you laugh one minute, and then leave you chills the next – as two young people, who barely knew each other if not at all, somehow find each other – and find love.
Lloyd Dobler (Cusack) graduates from high school, and has no clear future – maybe outside of being a kickboxer. He has feelings for Diane Court (Skye), the school valedictorian who seemed to be more interested in her schoolwork than any social life. She also works for a nursing home owned and operated by her father Jim (Mahoney), who simply wants nothing but success for his daughter. He even takes great joy in Diane landing a fellowship to England, maybe more joy from him than Diane herself. Yet things change when Lloyd asks her out, and she ultimately responds – by accepting. They end up at a party, and while they don’t have much time together, they end up learning a lot about each other – and by the next morning, they want to see each other again.
The film traces Lloyd and Diane’s blossoming relationship, and Jim’s unsurprising lack of support for their love – to him, Lloyd is nothing more than a roadblock to Diane’s future. Yet in a surprising twist, Jim has a major roadblock of his own to deal with – in the form of the IRS investigating him for fraud and tax issues. This ultimately tests Jim and Diane’s relationship and especially their trust, which also affects Diane’s time with Lloyd.
At this point, giving away any more of the story would be a major detriment to the experience of why Say Anything… is such a really special film.
Cusack is great as Lloyd, and he pulls off the great tightrope walking of comedy and drama with incredible effectiveness. One notable scene is during the film’s third act, in which Lloyd hangs out with some of his frat buddies outside the Gas ‘n’ Sip. The way he describes his time with Diane is an emotional moment where Lloyd gets away from being the goofy guy he seemed to be at the film’s start. What makes Lloyd so refreshing compared to other leading men in the same type of teen romantic comedy is that he’s not afraid to be honest about his future, and admitting what he really wants to do – just spending time with Diane before he leaves.
Before playing Diane Court, Skye had lead roles in two previous films – River’s Edge (1986) and The Rachel Papers (1989). Yet this is Skye’s finest hour, in which she turns Diane from being just another pretty girl with brains into something more of a deeply conflicted figure. For all of her school and future success, Diane never found time to fit in – but with Lloyd, she finally gets that chance. Yet she also has to deal with her father’s potential troubles with the law, all while also trying to get ready to go to England. Like Cusack, Skye walks an incredible tightrope of emotions – charming, funny, at times vulnerable, and just deeply moving.
The chemistry between Cusack and Skye is just perfect – the aspiring kickboxer and the pretty girl somehow connect, and do they connect. From Lloyd pushing aside broken glass for Diane outside of a 7-11 to his teaching her how to drive, and all the romantic moments throughout, this is a couple genuinely worth rooting for. Most teen romantic films (of any decade, including the ’80s) seem to put together romantic unions with absolutely little to no groundwork, and with no real reason to rally behind them in moments of strife and peril. In Say Anything…, Crowe’s great script pulls off that groundwork and makes Lloyd and Diane a couple that should be together.
Yet the most intriguing performance lies with John Mahoney as Jim Court. Upon first glance, Jim may first come off as the typical father who wants his daughter to be happy – and keep potential problems like Lloyd out of the way. Yet as the film’s subplot of his financial freefall takes place, Jim – and Mahoney – undergoes an emotional and physical transformation that is just as powerful. One standout scene has Jim sitting in a bathtub, with only the look on his face telling the whole story. The last time Mahoney shows up on screen fulfills the transformation to a stunning degree. Jim Court certainly makes Martin Crane (Mahoney’s other famous father, from the TV series “Frasier”) seem almost harmless.
Besides the three leading stars, Lili Taylor (Short Cuts, “Six Feet Under”) also has a great subplot as Corey Flood, Lloyd’s best friend. She tries to be his voice of reason in warning Lloyd of the potential consequences of losing Diane, and she would know – she continues to sing songs about Joe (Loren Dean), the boy who broke her heart. A brief scene in the party between Taylor and Dean is well-acted, and while not much is known about their rocky past, their performances in that scene conveys a lot.
There are other great notable actors in the film – Jeremy Piven (Entourage) as one of Lloyd’s frat friends; Eric Stoltz (Mask) as the leader of the party where Lloyd and Diane’s first date happens; Chynna Phillips (of Wilson Phillips) in a very brief appearance as Joe’s new girlfriend; Bebe Neuwirth (“Cheers”) as a guidance counselor; Lois Chiles (Moonraker) in a brief but great turn as Diane’s mother; Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) as an IRS agent who shows up in the film’s third act; and even Joan Cusack (John’s sister) shows up for a few scenes as Lloyd’s sister.
Another brilliant aspect of Say Anything… is Crowe’s selection of music. His then-wife, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, provides brief song snippets describing Corey’s constant hatred for Joe (she also sings the film’s great end title song “All for Love”). Crowe also brings in songs from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, The Replacements (“Within Your Reach”), Fishbone and even guitar god Joe Satriani. Not surprisingly, the best song use of this – and possibly of any Crowe film – is the inclusion of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” The song is used twice – once during a very romantic moment with Lloyd and Diane in his car, and a certain moment mentioned at the article’s beginning. It’s just a great song, one of Gabriel’s most powerful, and its use is beyond effective.
Say Anything… may just be a prototype of what a great teen romantic film should be – funny at times, gut-wrenching at others, two people with a genuine affection for each other, a realistic (and never stereotypical) force to try to split them, and with no need to lower itself to gross humor to make a moment work. Crowe and his cast deliver so many great scenes in just this one film, and it truly is a hallmark among the best films of the 1980s. Even for its time period and its elements, its filmmaking power is never dated – and with great performances and a great story – it never will.