We take a look back at Cameron Crowe’s classic ’80s romantic comedy, a film that’s much more than John Cusack holding a boombox.
Cameron Crowe’s teenage romantic comedy Say Anything… turned 30 years old this week, but more notable than its particular age (one that would put Lloyd Dobler and “Diane Court whoa” on the cusp of their 50s) is the peer group turning 30 right around the same time, and how these other movies influenced culture in its stead. For example: Say Anything was released just two weeks after Heathers, two decidedly different specimens of the 1980s teen comedy that nonetheless represent twin peaks of the era, both coming in right at the end.
Heathers is far from heartless, but a lot of its comedy is pitch black, enough that an inexperienced writer set Twitter ablaze with a recent ill-considered essay about watching this decidedly (intentionally) offensive comedy for the first time. Say Anything, in which smart and sensitive but vaguely underachieving Lloyd (John Cusack) embarks upon an unlikely post-graduation summer romance with his overachieving crush Diane (Ione Skye), is very funny, but it is utterly, achingly sincere. Heathers walks the line where petty social transgressions turn into horrifying crimes of vengeance; in Say Anything, a father who commits tax fraud so betrays his daughter that she disowns him.
While neither movie was a blockbuster (and Say Anything was much more widely seen in its original release), Heathers is still making Twitter headlines and inspiring imitators, both directly (a troubled Heathers TV show has yet to properly air, but a season of it was produced!) and indirectly: Mean Girls is its most-cited descendant, but there have also been lower-rent imitators like Jawbreaker, and any post-1990 teen comedy that features a cadre of pitiless, cartoonish popular girls probably owes at least something to Heathers.
Heathers, in other words, became archetypal, and while the scene from Say Anything where Lloyd stands outside Diane’s window hoisting up a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” as a defiant reminder of their defunct relationship has certainly cemented itself into popular culture, the rest of the movie defies stereotypes.
Lloyd is socially awkward, but he’s not exactly a nerd. He doesn’t have a lot of close male friends, at one point mentioning that his yearbook inscriptions all say stuff like “Lloyd, see ya around maybe,” but he’s intensely loyal. He goes to parties, but he doesn’t really party hard. As Caroline Siede points out in her wonderful essay about the film, he also assumes the stereotypically female role of the supporting partner, whose uncertainty about his own future is clarified when he meets Diane. He can be there for her, and that’s what he wants to do for a living.
Say Anything is like a Hughes teen comedy that actually somehow turned into a great movie.
This wouldn’t work as well if Diane didn’t have just as much screentime as her paramour; she does, along with her own set of expectations-confounding quirks. She’s beautiful and personable, but not exactly popular. She’s studious but concerned with being thought of as a “priss” by the peers she barely knows. If John Hughes movies revealed the hurt and complexities underneath certain teenage types, Say Anything fills out those types with sharp, specific details. This is true for even the silliest or dopiest side characters, like the dumb boys chilling in the Gas ‘n Sip parking lot (“drinking beers, with no women anywhere,” as Lloyd points out).
This isn’t to favor one nearly perfect high school comedy over another, but to point out how special Say Anything still feels fresh, 30 years later. There are hairstyles and clothing of the time, to be sure (Diane’s hat on the airplane!), but it’s not the type of movie that gets shucked over into “that’s so ’80s!” montages. It also makes sense that Heathers went on to influence a lot more films than Say Anything; despite Crowe’s knack for capturing a youthful voice, it feels in a lot of ways like a grown-up movie, especially in a genre where even its more sensitive John Hughes-stamped predecessors have plenty of antics and/or hijinks. (Say Anything is like a Hughes teen comedy that actually somehow turned into a great movie.)
The movie’s third lead is John Mahoney as Diane’s single father, and their relationship has more dramatic weight than any number of superficially heavier dramas, to say nothing of teen movies where parents turn up for some combination of shtick and last-minute heart-to-hearts. Say Anything has a lot of youthful idealism—as so many have pointed out, its ending rejiggers The Graduate’s final shot into something uncertain but hopeful—but its maturity makes that quality feel well-earned, rather than a sop to a particular demographic.
As a more sophisticated movie than many of its brethren, another competitor for Say Anything in the field of1989 movie legacies isn’t a teen movie at all; it’s When Harry Met Sally…, which came out a few months later, in July of the same year (and, like Say Anything, originally had its title styled with an ellipsis at the end). Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy about Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan starting off at odds, becoming close friends, and eventually realizing they’re in love with each other is probably the most influential rom-com of the past, what, 40 years? (Just think of all those movies that insist in dialogue that their romantic leads with a platonic history are “best friends” despite both of them typically having closer friends of the same sex. That is When Harry Met Sally…’s fault.)
Like Heathers, Sally… is a great movie, unsullied by its less skillful imitators. And like Heathers, its imitators pushed a whole genre in a cartoonier direction. The quips, the post-screwball bickering, the fake-orgasm setpiece—those are the pieces that survived in the minds of a generation or more of romantic comedy screenwriters.
Indirectly, this further highlights the specialness of Say Anything, which isn’t just a teen movie with a romantic subplot; the equal attention paid to its two young lovers, the litany of hilarious moments, and the profound rooting interest it creates in Lloyd and Diane’s relationship make it one of the all-time great romantic comedies. While it’s disappointing to see how few rom-coms or teen movies take any cues at all from the warmth of Crowe’s film, not every classic is as influential as The Breakfast Club or It Happened One Night (or Heathers, or When Harry Met Sally…). Maybe that’s OK. Maybe Say Anything is, in Lloyd’s words, a dare-to-be-great situation. Maybe it’s enough that it rises to that challenge.