A look back at Cameron Crowe’s charming ensemble comedy about love in the grunge era.
Most of Generation X has received our AARP memberships in the mail, as our lurching journey down the road towards irrelevance comes to an end. Both the smallest generation in numbers, and the first generation to not do better than our parents financially, we’ve long been caught in the middle of the endless battle for dominance between Boomers and Millennials, and now with Gen Z steamrolling over them both, we’re fading out of the cultural picture altogether, like Marty McFly’s brother and sister.
See that? That’s a classic Gen X pop culture reference.
But don’t get me wrong, it’s actually kind of a relief to be forgotten, and left out of the conversation. When TikTok videos make fun of “middle-aged” people still wearing skinny jeans, they’re not talking about us, they’re talking about Millennials. When discussing how such hot button political topics as defunding the police poll with “older voters,” they’re not talking about us, they’re talking about Boomers. Too old to be raising small children, and too young to retire, we’re just sort of…there. It’s not always such a bad place to be.
What is unfortunate, however, is how much of Gen X pop culture has been swept away in the dustbin of time. While 70 and 80s nostalgia stubbornly refuses to die (honestly, folks, the 80s weren’t that great), no one really looks back on the early 90s grunge era with affection except the people who were in a very narrow age range (say, 16 to 25) during that time. The young folks aren’t discovering the music of Nirvana as something fresh and new, it’s just us keeping that particular flame alive. No one says “Boy, I wish I could go back to the time when spoken word poetry was a thing.” There’s no reason anyone would want to go back to that time, because it was short-lived, and, other than the music, had very little impact on the world overall.
The small number of movies made specifically for us have been largely forgotten as well, and that’s the true loss, particularly as it pertains to Cameron Crowe’s Singles, released thirty years ago this month. A charming ensemble comedy about love amongst a group of Seattle twentysomethings, its core themes are still fresh and relevant now, despite its very specific early 90s grunge setting. Unlike a lot of pop culture of our youth, watching it today doesn’t result in wincing embarrassment, and it boasts probably one of (if not the best) soundtracks of the 90s, introducing mainstream audiences to no less than Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, all of whom appear in the film.
Occasionally presented as a faux documentary, Singles focuses on a group of five friends who all live in the same apartment building, back during a more innocent time when you could afford your own place while working at a coffee shop. Steve (Campbell Scott) works for the Department of Transportation, and is determined to focus on improving himself before getting involved in a serious relationship. The cheerfully naïve Janet (Bridget Fonda, impossibly adorable) is dating musician Cliff (Matt Dillon), who likes her, but probably not as much as she likes him. Film buff Bailey (Jim True-Frost) wants to live his life “like a French movie,” while Debbie (Sheila Kelley) just wants to find a man, any man.
Everybody has a very set idea of what they think they want and how to get it, but of course, as the saying goes, man plans, and God laughs, especially when it concerns relationships. God laughs very loud, and very heartily in those situations. But I digress. Steve meets Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), an environmentalist who, after a number of bad relationships, is also determined to live life strictly for herself. Their chemistry is immediate and overwhelming–”If I had a personal connection with God, I would ask him to create this girl,” Steve says. But Linda is wary of getting hurt again, and Steve thinks he needs to do stuff like wait several days to call her after a successful first date to “let things breathe” (a thing people still do that is very dumb!!).
Meanwhile, Janet begins to realize that Cliff, while not a bad guy, may not be the steadfast suitor of her dreams, and breaks up with him, at least temporarily. She and Steve, who briefly dated long before any of this happens, still act as friendly counsel for each other, with Steve even accompanying her to an appointment for breast enlargement surgery, which she’s ultimately talked out of by superhot plastic surgeon Bill Pullman (that Janet rebuffs his polite advances is probably the only unrealistic part of this movie). When Steve and Linda break up after a pregnancy loss and rejected marriage proposal, it’s Janet who tells him to keep leaving himself open for love, and the possibility that things can be worked out with Linda. She, in turn, might be willing to give Cliff, who seems to be coming to the realization that he has feelings for her after all, another chance.
Singles isn’t exactly War and Peace when it comes to plot. The most dramatic moment is a second act car accident, which ultimately triggers Steve and Linda’s breakup. It’s mostly just these characters talking about their love lives, set to an absolutely blistering soundtrack. It might be one of the definitive hangout movies, featuring genuinely likable characters who you want to see be happy. Even Cliff is more just kind of a callow lunkhead than a jerk, and in his defense he’s upfront with Janet about his reluctance to be in a committed relationship. It’s her who has to change as well, understanding that a relationship can’t happen just because she wants it to happen.
If the film suffers anywhere, it’s that, like a lot of ensemble comedies, there’s simply too many characters. While Jim True-Frost is delightful as Bailey, he doesn’t do much except occasionally comment on things, and almost disappears entirely for the last quarter of the movie. Debbie gets even less to do than that, although she does appear in one of the best scenes in the movie, when she films a bizarre video dating ad that invites potential dates to “come to Debbie Country.”
It’s a small complaint in an otherwise sweet and hopeful comedy, where the key takeaway for relationships are (1) don’t be cynical, (2) don’t play games, and (3) remember the little things, like unlocking someone’s car door for them, or blessing them after they sneeze, because they matter more than you think. It’s also very funny, particularly a scene in which Eric Stoltz plays an all too talkative mime, and another when Steve imagines Seattle Sonics player Xavier McDaniel advising him not to come too soon during the first time he and Linda have sex. Stoltz isn’t the only familiar face, with cameos from Tim Burton, Victor Garber, Paul Giamatti (with a full head of curly hair, no less), and the members of Pearl Jam, who play the rest of Citizen Dick, Cliff’s band (their single “Touch Me, I’m Dick” is a hit in Belgium, Cliff is quick to point out). Oh yeah, and Jeremy Piven pops up in one scene as an old high school classmate of Steve’s, but, again, it’s a small complaint in an otherwise very likable movie, like a single raisin accidentally making its way into a delicious chocolate chip cookie.
A modest box office hit, it seemed as though Singles would be the ultimate Gen X movie (if not the only movie specifically about Gen X). Then, two years later, its evil twin Reality Bites was released, and inexplicably did far better at the box office. It’s telling that Reality Bites didn’t gain traction until it was no longer promoted as a Gen X movie, but rather just a standard romantic comedy. Unlike its predecessor, it was a cynical, artificial depiction of a generation who was just barely getting started in the world, featuring irritating, self-absorbed characters who do little else but talk in pop culture references and look down on anyone who believes that it’s necessary to work for a living.
In Singles, everybody has jobs, and, more importantly, doesn’t look at earning money as “selling out” or some nonsense. Even Cliff, who seems like the kind of guy who would sponge off various girlfriends rather than work, maintains four jobs to support his musical career, such as it is. It’s almost like Cameron Crowe wanted to depict what it was really like for young people in the 90s, rather than someone’s unflattering, inaccurate perception of them. That Reality Bites is the one that’s held up as the definitive movie of a generation is the kind of irony that Generation X truly loves.