It’s curious what will relegate a film to “dated” status. Of the last 30 years of rom-coms, Singles (1992) would make my top five. Yet due to its grunge soundtrack and location in then-trendy Seattle, Cameron Crowe’s paean to dating has been forgotten. I wonder why The More the Merrier (1943), with a whole premise based on the WWII housing shortage in D.C., hasn’t suffered a similar fate. The two movies resemble one another in many unexpected ways, and deserve credit for being what films in their genre–despite its name–so rarely are: funny and romantic.
Both films are notable for their winning leading ladies. That trembling voice of Jean Arthur’s; equally able to capture passion, sense, and vulnerability; her perfectly timed delivery; and her gentle expressions all have so completely overcome audiences by the start of The More the Merrier that she remains the center of our attention despite considerable competition from her roommates: sexy Joel McCrea as Joe and adorable Charles Coburn as matchmaker Benjamin Dingle.
Kyra Sedgwick, the heroine of Singles, was one of those charismatic, promising starlets who gave up her career for her family (husband Kevin Bacon & kids), only to claim it back years later with The Closer. In Singles, you can see what might have been had she stuck around instead of leaving us with one-note Jennifer Aniston.
As Linda, she woos you in the first few minutes with her dismay over her broken car, reluctant acceptance of masculine help, and joy when the knight proves to not be a player. Her mobile face catches every emotion–reluctant trust, passion, joy, and ultimately, of course, despair, as she’s, of course, wrong about him, and her resolve not to let her heart be broken again sets the stage for her resistance to the film’s hero, Steve (Campbell Scott).
Since Singles is an ensemble film, we’re also treated to heroine Janet (Bridget Fonda), who is passionate about her hilariously untalented rocker boyfriend, Cliff (Matt Dillon). I’m not sure why Bridget Fonda never took off. She’s so endearing in this role, apparently a part written just for her. She’s funny and vulnerable and cute and tough all at once.
Her lovable fragility reminds me of Jean Arthur’s as Connie. And like Connie, Janet recognizes more about her boyfriend’s lack of commitment to her than she’s willing to admit. While he prioritizes his band over her, again and again, we watch Janet registering it, even as she supports him.
When the inevitable breakup comes, we’re not surprised; Janet is not as clueless as she chooses to appear at the start of the film, when she expresses faith in Cliff’s fidelity despite evidence she shouldn’t:
“Look, Janet, you know I see other people still, right? You do know that, don’t you?” says Cliff.
“You don’t fool me,” Janet answers.
“Janet, I could not be fooling you less.”
Likewise, Connie knows her fiancé’s career trumps their relationship–and her needs. She’s just so busy selling his good salary and reliability that she’s unaware just how hollow she sounds as she’s bragging. Her dismay at Dingle and Joe meeting him says it all.
Luckily, Connie has matchmaker Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) forcing her to confront her future husband’s selfishness. Dingle knows a deal helping her fiance’s career will make him dump Connie for the night, leaving the path open for the far hotter and sweeter Joe (Joel McCrea). The sign for Connie that Joe’s worth her time? He could have read her diary, and didn’t. He bought her a wedding gift–no strings attached–that displays his understanding of her: a travel bag with neat compartments, for a girl so organized she’s planned out every minute of her morning.
Singles is all about paying attention to such signs: What should make you keep committing? What should make you give up? As writer/director Cameron Crowe obviously realized, it’s important to pay attention when single, or you’ll get your heart caught by someone who’s not worth it, making you less receptive to the lover actually worth your time.
For Steve (Campbell Scott), the sign is simple: a flick of the finger: Linda (Sedgwick) opens the car door lock for him, surely a sign that she likes him in spite of their prickly date.
Janet (Fonda) has been so beaten down by bad dates that such little gestures are all she’s now expecting of a guy, as captured in one of the film’s best scenes. She’s in the waiting room to get her breasts enlarged (her shortcut to Cliff’s loyalty).
“Tell me, from a girl’s point of view, what do you really want from a guy?” asks Steve, who has accompanied her for moral support.
“Well, when I first moved out here from Tucson,” Janet begins, warming to the theme, “I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring, someone with their own place, someone who said bless you or Gesundheit when I sneezed, you know? And umm, someone who liked the same things as me, but not exactly, and someone who loves me.”
“Tall order,” he answers.
“Yeah, I scaled it down a little,” she admits, her disappointment deflating both expression and voice.
“Well, what is it now?”
“Someone who says Gesundheit when I sneeze, although I prefer bless you, it’s nicer.”
As it turns out, the surgery doesn’t happen: Janet’s nerdy plastic surgeon (Bill Pullman) advises against it, suggesting she looks great now. Although no romance develops between them, his kind words make her realize how much she’s compromised for Cliff, just as in The More the Merrier, Dingle makes Connie recognize how little her fiancé values her. While Connie’s realization leads to endless tears, Janet is relieved. She gives Cliff one last chance, sneezing as he’s ranting about a poor review of his band.
“Hey babe?” he answers, handing her a tissue. “Don’t get me sick. I’m playing this weekend.”
Janet glances at the tissue box and then over at her boyfriend.
After dumping him, she dances alone, almost as beautifully as Connie does early in The More the Merrier. I won’t spoil where the story goes from there–for Janet, Linda, or the other quirky characters of Singles. Watch the film. Even if the love stories don’t get you, the funny sight of Pearl Jam members playing backup for Cliff will–one of many, many reasons even “chick flick” accusers can warm to this hilarious, charming rom-com.