`Singles' Picks You Up

----------------------------------------------------------- XXX 1/2 "Singles," with Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Sheila Kelley, Jim True, Bill Pullman. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Alderwood, Crossroads, Factoria, Gateway, Guild 45th, Lewis & Clark. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised, due to language. -----------------------------------------------------------

Uh-oh. Lesser Seattle's in trouble again.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe's much-anticipated romantic comedy about the Seattle singles scene, "Singles," may be the most luminous cinematic valentine ever addressed to the city. So much of Seattle is in this movie, and so much of it looks so inviting and glamorous, that critics in other parts of the country are already sounding envious.

Lawrence Frascella, writing about "Singles" in the current issue of Us magazine, describes Seattle as "a town that has become synonymous with fresh starts and clean slates," while Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calls Seattle "the new capital of middle-class bohemian chic." Natives who grow restless during overcast November days may want to debate this, but the 35-year-old Crowe has almost done for this city what Woody Allen did for Manhattan in the 1970s.

It really started four years ago with Crowe's smashing directorial debut, "Say Anything," which was also set in Seattle but focused more on one relationship. "Singles" doesn't cut as deep, and it has already been accused of being somewhat bland compared to its predecessor. But it's simply a different animal: a giddy, fizzy tale of several young people simultaneously fleeing from and rushing toward attachment.

Not that Crowe has completely changed his tune. Like "Say Anything," the movie is also about how people change and grow through the mistakes they make in love. None of the central characters is quite the same at the end of the movie as when it started, and that's a large part of Crowe's achievement.

Coming off a disastrous affair with a deceitful charmer, one woman who's looking for "a mixture of Mel Gibson and Holden Caulfield" (Kyra Sedgwick) is wary of relationships and nearly destroys her chances with an earnest, infatuated city engineer (Campbell Scott). Obsessed with a single-minded musician (Matt Dillon), a coffee-shop waitress (Bridget Fonda) turns herself into a doormat.

Crowe takes an almost palpable delight in watching them work their way out of these traps, using seemingly casual details (the unlocking of a car door) and defensive dialogue"Work is the only thing I have complete control over") to suggest what's really on their minds.

His actors are with him all the way. Scott once more proves his heartthrob potential, Fonda finds the innate dignity in her role, while Sedgwick makes her character's occasionally infuriating obtuseness understandable. Bill Pullman is touching as Fonda's gentle, uptight doctor, and Tom Skerritt, Tim Burton and Peter Horton make the most of their cameos. Dillon's deadpan delivery has never been used to better comic effect; a scene in which he's interviewed about his band (Crowe himself asks the questions) is worthy of inclusion in "This Is Spinal Tap."

Much has been made of the best-selling, grunge-heavy soundtrack for "Singles," although the songs by local bands Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney are heard mostly in the background. An easier-on-the-ears score by Paul Westerberg of the Replacements dominates the picture, and his infectious number, "Dyslexic Heart," builds to and expresses the movie's theme during the closing credits.

"Singles" isn't perfect. There's an unlikely resolution to a pregnancy that plays like something out of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama, and a peripheral subplot about a date-desperate woman (Sheila Kelley) that never really gets going. But this is one happy-ending romance that doesn't feel forced. You can't help getting into the spirit of it.