Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: River Phoenix, Lili Taylor, Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark, Mitchell Whitfield | Directed by: Nancy Savoca | Produced by: Richard Guay, Peter Newman, Cathleen Summers, Llewellyn Wells | Written by: Bob Comfort | Distributor: Warner Bros.
This film is well-written, well-acted and authentic to its time period, but disturbing in both its subject matter and its incidental content.
The main story takes place in 1963 and is presented as a full-film flashback, bracketed between opening and closing sequences in 1966. The night before shipping out to Okinawa and eventually to Vietnam to act as “advisors”, four Marine buddies—Birdlace, Berzin, Benjamin and Buele (the “Four Bees”)--plan to attend a Dogfight. We’re not immediately told exactly what a Dogfight is; so if you want to watch the film and be surprised, skip the next two paragraphs and also avoid reading the box liner notes.
It seems strange at first that all four guys try to pick up plain-looking girls for a party that night, and one of them actually refuses an advance by a pretty girl. Eventually the mystery is solved. In a Dogfight, each Marine kicks in $50. After all the expenses of the private party are paid, most of the leftover money is a prize for the guy who brings the ugliest date. (As if girls didn’t have enough reasons already to suspect guys of having ulterior motives.)
Eddie Birdlace (River Phoenix, “Running on Empty”) finds peacenik Rose (Lili Taylor, “Say Anything”) working in a coffee shop and practicing folk guitar on her break. Her looks seem to fit the bill, so he snows her with lies and craftily asks her out. When she later comes to the door dressed up and somewhat prettier, he musses her makeup in a last-ditch effort to win the prize. But on the way to the party, he begins to have pangs of conscience and tries to skip the Dogfight and take her somewhere else. She’ll have none of it; she wants to stick to Plan A. The party has a strange atmosphere, with guys dancing with girls that are much shorter, taller, older or wider than themselves. The best-looking girl at the party turns out, on close inspection, to be a guy in drag. When Rose accidentally learns the hidden agenda from the “winning” girl, you might say the party’s over. Now really smitten with guilt, Eddie tries to reconnect with Rose and start from square one (pretty farfetched that she’d consider his offer, but not impossible). Although some reviewers call this a great love story, please note that even after Eddie says he’s come clean with Rose he’s still lying to her. She asks him if she “won” anything; and although she was actually “honorable mention” and made Eddie some prize money, he tells her she was “disqualified” for throwing up. So, can a Hootenanny wannabe find true happiness with a lying leatherneck who doesn’t even know who Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are and who thinks the way to change the world is to start shooting?
I love the intensity that River Phoenix brought to his film roles (except the final few, after he became a drug addict in real life). I watched this film primarily because he was the lead, and in terms of acting skill he didn’t disappoint me. Lili Taylor is also excellent here, and has successfully handled a wide range of other film roles. Richard Panebianco, Anthony Clark and Mitchell Whitfield do a good job as the other three “Bees”. Young Brendan Fraser can be spotted as one of a group of sailors mixing it up with a group of Marines.
There’s a lot of ’50s and ’60s music soundtrack, which brings back memories for some of us. A sequence of people reacting to news of the Kennedy assassination is also a memory-trigger. I suspected that this story was somewhat of an autobiography by writer Bob Comfort, and on checking further it seems that I was correct.
Content Warnings: The language is extreme, full of profanity and colorful insults as the Marines try to out-gross and out-cuss each other. The Dogfight theme itself is offensive. Birdlace seems to have a chip on his shoulder and to be at war with everyone. There’s a sequence which implies that three Marines are “serviced” orally by a prostitute while watching an old-style “informational” skin flick (some visible nudity in the film-within-a-film). Also an implied sex scene between Eddie and Rose on their first and only night together, with Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” as background (that ain’t “love”, folks). The in-Vietnam sequence includes on-screen and implied deaths. There’s also miscellaneous objectionable content (smoking, drinking, lying, fistfighting etc.) that’s not worth detailing in comparison to the stronger content.
Despite the excellent acting, the near-documentary-detail style of director Nancy Savoca (“True Love,” “If These Walls Could Talk”), and a somewhat touching story of romance between “ordinary” people, this film not only offends us at every turn with strong content but also presents a shallow view of human relationships even in its best moments. We see how bad things can be. We don’t get to see how good they really could be, if men and women would stop treating each other as objects or status-symbols and would respect each other as made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).