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WELL-CAST `SINGLES' HAS NICE LIGHT TOUCH

Writer-director Cameron Crowe ("Say Anything") has a nice light touch that hovers between farce and realism.

He has enough storytelling sense to stage very funny comic scenes with his actors without feeling the need to sacrifice the characterizations to get the laugh.He also has enough commercial savvy to know how to tap into the youth audience that is so coveted by movie studios today - in his use of visual style and technique, background music (the soundtrack is already doing well on the charts) and without overdoing the sex so he can more readily pull in a young teen audience (the PG-13 rating here is pretty tame by recent standards).

Not to mention a knack for casting, having gathered together a talented cast of young, appealing actors who project intelligence, independence and vulnerability in a way that allows the audience to identify with them and not feel particularly superior or inferior. Everyone here could be someone with whom we're acquainted.

"Singles" captures very well the horrors of the dating pool that confronts single men and women in modern society. But it's not so cynical that it leaves true love out of the equation. In fact, in the end, Crowe succumbs to his most sentimental tendencies. And that's not altogether unwelcome.

The film begins with a brief prologue as Kyra Sedgwick speaks directly to the camera (other characters will do the same throughout the film), relating a recent dating horror story. It's the harshest and saddest of the many relationships profiled in the film.

Crowe is smart to begin the film with this little story because it puts those that will follow into perspective, allowing us to see the worst example before meeting the characters with whom we will sympathize.

Next up is Campbell Scott, who, like Sedgwick, is a professional yuppie-type - it's a given that they'll meet. Their romance is, of course, rather rocky. Both have been down this road before and they find it hard to believe this relationship will be different.

Then comes waitress Bridgit Fonda and the neighbor she worships, Matt Dillon, a mediocre musician who wants to play the field. Fonda, of course, is the best girlfriend he's ever had, but he won't recognize that until she gets fed up and breaks it off. There's a nice twist when Fonda asserts her independence and begins enjoying life alone, though, ultimately, Cameron can't resist letting the story revert to the expected.

Others who float in and out of the film are Sheila Kelley, as an ill-fated computer dater who will find happiness in an unexpected but more conventional way; Bill Pullman, as a self-effacing plastic surgeon who becomes a pseudo-analyst to Fonda; and other assorted secondary players, some of whom add nicely to the mix. (There are also unexpected cameos by Eric Stoltz, unrecognizable as a mime; Tom Skerritt, as the mayor of Seattle; Peter Horton, as a computer-date bicyclist; and "Batman" director Tim Burton as a zany videomaker.)

At its best, "Singles" is witty, bright and offers insights without a sledge hammer approach. At its worst the film is fragmented, underdeveloped and pat. We're never worried that these couples won't get together - but watching the journey is fun anyway.

"Singles" is rated a fairly tame PG-13 for some profanity and graphic language; there is also a brief sex scene, brief nudity and violence (an auto accident).