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Teen Directors III:
Cameron Crowe


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 11, 2008

At first, it seemed to me that Cameron Crowe was just another John Aristotle Philips. Mr. Philips, who liked being called by his middle name, was splashed all over the media when he "built an atom bomb" in his Princeton dorm room for his junior-year project. He did something sensational, wrote a book about it, and then disappeared.

Cameron Crowe also did something sensational-he spent a year undercover as a high school student. He wrote a book about it called Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But Cameron Crowe stayed around. He wrote the screenplay for his book and went on to become a big-name Hollywood writer/director. Not bad for a child prodigy who was writing for Rolling Stone at the age of 15.

The 1982 movie version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High got a lot of attention. It arguably kicked off the 1980s teen movie craze that John Hughes would bring to its fruition. Fast Times is a lot different from the films that Cameron both directed and wrote. In light of his directorial output year later, one has to believe that Fast Times would have been quite different with Crowe at the helm---a movie perhaps too far ahead of its time to be successful.

Crowe's killer 1989 teen movie, Say Anything, did not hit the theatres until well after the John Hughes wave of films, and Say Anything only recently achieved classic status. I was not even aware of the film until early 2002 when I ran across it on HBO in a San Francisco hotel room. I was sufficiently impressed with it that I got the DVD that had just been released at the Market Street Virgin Megastore and watched it again on my real IBM ThinkPad (as opposed to the Lenovo that this commentary is being edited on while my allergist turns me into a human pincushion).

What I liked about Say Anything (I refuse to type the silly ellipsis anymore) is that it portrayed teen life and love in what seem to me to be a more "realistic" way than any other movie that I had ever seen. Sure plenty of it is contrived, but movies just do not work if there are not contrived. Reality is never neat and something that takes about 90 minutes start to finish has to be neat. Yet, within cinematic restrictions, the various relationships in the movie just seemed to work in a way that the film's predecessors, especially those from John Hughes, did not. (Of course, a realistic Ferris Bueller would not have been any fun at all.)

John Cusack single-handedly makes this movie great and he even manages to make lesser talents such as the ubiquitous Eric Stoltz ("King of the Indies") and Jeremy Piven look good. Just like Mia Sara in Ferris Bueller, Ione Skye has the impossible girlfriend role to play and she almost pulls it off. (Given the undying devotion to Ms. Skye on the Net, I suspect my opinion may be in the minority here.) One suspects Ms. Skye was cast according to the description of her character, Diane Court, early in the film as a "brain in the body of a game show hostess." Ione did her job; however, and did not upstage John Cusack's character, Lloyd Dobler. (If you want to see what happens when the object of affection upstages the leading man, considers Career Opportunities, in which Jennifer Connelly lays waste to Frank Whaley and everyone around her, destroying the box office receipts of this John Hughes-penned film in the process.)

Say Anything is a great because of its "little moments." Not all of them--I could do without any of Lili Taylor's moments--but most of them. The boom-box scene is now so classic that it may no longer be a little moment, but it used to be. Diane's talking to her father about Lloyd's brushing the glass away for her is great, too. And even with Lili Taylor on screen, the girl talk about why Diane would have anything to do with Lloyd works, too. Even Lloyd driving around despondent in the Seattle rain and saying "the rain on my car is a baptism" into the tape recorder works. The ending, which is a variant on the classic end of The Graduate fits the movie.

The Seattle location works, too, and this was Seattle before it made it big and exported burnt coffee to the rest of the world (insert a rare smiley here). Although he grew up in San Diego, Cameron Crowe just seems like a Seattle sort of person. His next movie, Singles, is also set in Seattle and it came out at the time Seattle was hitting it big as the grunge capital of the world.

The touch of James Brooks, the producer of Cheers, Frasier, etc., fame, is evident as well and adds to the movie. Not only did Say Anything's casting benefit from Mr. Brooks, but I suspect that he helped set just the right tone for the movie.

Say Anything was not the last word in teen movies, just those that sprung out of Ridgemont High. The year 1989 also gave us the black comedy masterpiece "Heathers," a film which not only took the genre to a new level, but set the stage for 1990s and such wonders as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Getting back to Cameron Crowe, I find that many of the other movies that he has directed contain moments that don't resonate with me at all. The worst of them is the Tiny Dancer moment on the bus in Almost Famous. While I was not a second-rate rock star in the '70s, I was there and I knew lots of people like the second-rate rock stars in the movie. Tiny Dancer was not on their playlist, trust me. Most of the characters in Singles, especially the Campbell Scott character who pitched the espresso-fueled SuperTrain, came from the annoying side of the Croweverse. That film was chock full of moments that just don't work for me.

Cameron Crowe seemingly got out of the teen film movie biz, but with Tom Cruise, the poster boy of arrested development, in two of his films (Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky), one can also consider those to be teen flicks. I don't have much to say about Jerry Maguire (I don't own it on DVD and only watched it once on cable), but unlike many of the critics (the film gets a pitiful 39% on the tomato meter) I actually liked Vanilla Sky and thought that it was a major improvement over Open Your Eyes, the Spanish film of which it is remake. Even Penelope Cruz is better in Crowe's version. I think that Vanilla Sky will age well and while it may never garner the acclaim of a Fight Club and Donnie Darko, it won't be that far behind them.

In Vanilla Sky, Tom Cruise plays Jann Wenner, the head of Rolling Stone and Mr. Crowe's long-time boss, or someone very much like him. Perpetual movie buddy and sometimes animated villain, Jason Lee, is Tom's sidekick. The rest of the cast, with the notable exception of the miscast Cameron Diaz, are even better than Cruise and Lee. Noah Taylor, Timothy Spall, and Alicia Witt in particular are outstanding in their roles. As a teen movie, it is definitely from the Donnie Darko mold in which someone enters weird parallel universe and the viewer wonders what in the world is going on. Cameron Crowe's big problem with Vanilla Sky is that, like the Spanish original, it is too restrained, refusing to take the metaphorical leap that Tom Cruise is force to take in that movie.

Cameron Crowe's future is a giant question mark. I haven't seen his latest film, Elizabethtown, but it did even worse with the critics than Vanilla Sky, which cannot be good for his career. It seems like Crowe has a giant hump to get over that will require a lot more maturity than his early films have shown. Failure, however, is a quick path to maturity and there is a chance that out of his failures Mr. Crowe can ultimately take things to the next level and become a truly great writer/director. We will just have to see.

Next month, it's back to technology, money, and so on for a while. Next summer's trilogy is likely to concern the production side of popular music, but I've got a long way to go until I get there.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to