Say anything is a beloved romantic comedy starring Ione Skye and the young John Cusack. I’m almost exactly the same age as John Cusack, so I was part of its targeted demographic back in the 1980s, but I missed it the first time around. Looking at it from the perspective of a middle-aged man writing in 2015, what fascinates me about Say Anything is not the romance. It’s the superficially leftist, but ultimately tricky, and perhaps even reactionary political agenda.
Say Anything was released in 1989. That means it was written and filmed in 1987 and 1988, exactly at the same time the now largely forgotten Savings and Loan scandal was playing itself out in the media. Unlike the Obama administration, which blocked prosecutions and sold the country on a massive bailout for Wall Street, the Reagan administration actually did send a token number of the S&L crooks to jail. This has very little to do with any philosophical or personal differences between Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Obama, like Reagan, is a charming corporate shill, little more, little less. But the United States was a different, more liberal country back in 1986. The American people simply wouldn’t have tolerated the same kind of corporate coup that it embraced in 2008 and 2009.
Jim Court, the father of the heroine Diane Court, isn’t a savings and loan banker, but he is a crook. The proprietor of an independent nursing home, he comes under investigation by the IRS just as his gifted daughter graduates from high-school and falls in love with Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler. Jim Court doesn’t consider himself a bad person. Why does he steal? Like Michael Corleone and Walter White, he does it for the children. He wants to set Diane up with a trust fund that will let her live through her 20s without worrying about money. John Court truly loves his daughter. He’s a likeable crook. But if he loves his daughter, he also sees her as a possession. The more he steals, the more perfect she has to be to justify his crime.
“It’s like a pyramid. It starts out with everybody, and it narrows through your life and through everything, and all the hoopla and the competition narrows it down to one brilliant person who is so special that they celebrate you on two continents. And it’s you. So tell me something, where’s the flaw in that? There is no flaw.”
If that doesn’t sum up the ideology of the American upper-middle-class in a few sentences, I don’t know what does.
John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler by contrast, is a slacker and an anti-corporate rebel. He has no real career plans, not because he’s lazy, but because unlike Diane, the ambitious high-school valedictorian he falls in love with, he can see the kind of societal rot people like her father embody. The son of an army officer stationed in Germany, Dobler sees the upper-middle-class world as phony and exploitive.
“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”
On the surface, Say Anything could be the official movie of Occupy Wall Street. The young rebel — who’s also a genuinely decent human being who respects women — liberates the sheltered young overachiever from the smothering, almost incestuous control of her father. Diane Court, who we’re told is brilliant, but also comes off as passive and conformist, learns how to think for herself, ultimately pushing herself to face the horrible reality, her father steals from senior citizens in order to bulk up her trust fund. Diane Court, the pampered young “show pony” — as one of Dobler’s friends puts it so eloquently — rejects a life of privilege based on lies in favor of true love.
What’s not to like? Probably nothing. I’m a bitter old fart who hates the sight of true love when he sees it on screen because he never found it when he was young. But I can’t help but notice how Cameron Crowe, the film’s writer and director, soft-pedals Jim Court’s crimes. The nursing home he runs is a really nice place. He may be stealing from 90-year-olds, but, unlike in a real life shady nursing home, they’re not living in their own filth or going hungry. They even have the young John Cusack to host “movie night.” What’s more, Jim Court doesn’t face any real consequences for his crimes. He gets 9 months in a country club federal prison and a fine. That may in fact be realistic. How many bankers or corporate criminals serve even 9 months in prison? But the film doesn’t seem to see anything amiss. In fact, Cameron Crowe sees Jim Court’s arrest as more of a convenient way to get him out of the way of his daughter’s burgeoning love affair with Lloyd Dobler than as any kind of genuine reckoning.
Then there’s Diane Court. We’re told that she’s a genius. But she gives no evidence of being the kind of person who’s going to win a Nobel Prize. She’s a nice girl with a good heart. But that’s part of the problem. She’s almost too good to be true, and her goodness, far from being a challenge to her father’s criminality, actually justifies it. Diane is not virginal — she’s the sexual aggressor not Lloyd — but she’s pure. She lives in the upper-class bubble that was created by her tax-cheat father by ripping off senior citizens, but it never touches her. She’s nice to the old ladies at her father’s nursing home. Somehow that makes it all OK.
That leads to the inevitable question. Say Anything ends on a happy note. But is Lloyd Dobler doomed to become just another Jim Court? Is he more like the second chance at a good father than a lover? Tellingly the last scene in the film has Lloyd coaxing the nervous Diane through a transatlantic flight — she’s won a fellowship to study in England but she’s afraid of flying — in a way her father never could. While Lloyd is almost an ideal sensitive, considerate man, he’s not as different from Jim Court as he might imagine himself. For Jim Court, Diane is the prize that justifies his theft. For Lloyd Dobler, Diane is the prize that justifies his inability to choose a career. Lloyd can coast through the rest of his life because, at 18, he’s already scored a perfect woman far above his own social status. Diane, not hard work, is Lloyd’s gateway to the upper-middle-class. Lloyd may be a rebel, but he’s no revolutionary, merely a young man who’s retreated from the economy into the bubble of domesticity.
Lloyd Dobler in other words, is an ideal for a generation that had to lower its economic expectations, to clean up the mess that corporate criminals like Jim Court left them, but not, necessarily, to have it as good as their parents did.