Singles, a disarmingly sweet-spirited comedy written and directed by Cameron Crowe, puts a new spin on the saga of boy meets girl. When the young romantic couples in this movie break up, they don’t get mad at each other. They simply go from being lovers to being friends — and it’s often hard to tell the difference. That’s what Singles is about: a generation so self-protective it has come to see love as just another style of friendship — as interaction plus cuddling.

This is only Crowe’s second film as a director, but his first, Say Anything… (1989), was perhaps the loveliest youth comedy of its decade. The high school romance between John Cusack and Ione Skye had a delicate, layered emotionalism; the movie was small but true. In Singles, Crowe expands his focus to include six characters in their early to mid-20s, most of whom live in the same horseshoe-shaped apartment complex in Seattle, the new capital of middle-class bohemian chic. The surprise is that Singles is even slighter than Say Anything… was. Crowe may be the rare director who’s in danger of having too much affection for his characters. He likes them so much, he minimizes their conflicts; he doesn’t want to see them hurt. Still, he has a savvy eye for detail and a genuine, flaky wit. Singles often comes close to being a television show (in a word, it’s twentysomething), but it’s a clever and infectious comedy of manners.

The two main characters are actually the least interesting. At a rock club, Steve (Campbell Scott), an architect, meets Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), who works for an environmental agency. Smitten but too insecure to commit, they keep breaking up and getting back together — which is fine, except that neither Sedgwick nor Scott has a vivid enough personality to make this merry-go-round seem novel.

Far better is Bridget Fonda as Janet, a waitress who is so attached to Cliff (Matt Dillon), a hunky thrash guitarist, that she wants to get breast implants just to keep him interested. Fonda’s relaxed ardor fits perfectly into Crowe’s scheme. Janet can’t seem to find the right man, yet she’s too level-headed to let depression overwhelm her; she practices managed despair. As Cliff, the surprisingly tender Neanderthal rocker, Dillon, who looks terrific in his Valkyrie locks, is the movie’s ace scene stealer. He strikes an endearing balance between glamour and stoned goofiness.

Singles has received a fair amount of publicity because of its links to the indigenous Seattle grunge-rock scene. Yet it’s far from being any sort of cutting-edge slice of rock & roll life. Given its nightclub settings, the movie could have used some more raunch; even when the characters go to bed together, they seem oddly chaste. Then again, except for Cliff, they’re not meant to be spiky, into-the-night types — they’re basically polite, stylish young professionals. What marks them as ’90s bohemians is their casual communalism. They’re like overgrown teenagers, blithely exchanging partners as if love were a high school square dance. At the same time, they’ve grown up in a world where romance is shot through with cynicism and fear. And so they’re too wary to let themselves swoon. Crowe has caught their spirit — the cooled-out passion of those who can long for love without being ruled by it. B+

  • Movie