Set in 1963, River Phoenix and his fellow marine buddies (Anthony Clark, Richard Panebianco, and Mitchell Whitfield) are partaking in a ‘dogfight’, a bet to see which one of them can bring along the ugliest date. Phoenix eyes mousy, folk music-loving waitress Lili Taylor and brings her to the local bar for the judging. A trip to the ladies’ room sees Taylor informed by another girl (played by E.G. Daily, who ‘wins’ the bet) that she’s part of a bet, as well as the nature of the bet. She is outraged and hurt she lets Phoenix have it, storming out. But unlike his idiot comrades, Phoenix has somewhat of a (guilty) conscience and a heart, and spends the rest of the night making it up to her. He starts to develop feelings for the girl, and begins trying to win her over. Taylor starts to see that there’s more to this young man than an immature dickface who plays unglamorous women for cruel sport. His friends are still complete dicks, though. Meanwhile, when dawn comes, Phoenix and his comrades will be shipping out…to Vietnam.
Director Nancy Savoca (in her most significant film to date) and screenwriter Bob Comfort (a former marine) manage to come up with a slightly different war tale with this 1991 flick that starts out seemingly one thing, before becoming something else altogether without any seams showing whatsoever. The film starts out somewhat like a cruel “Biloxi Blues” as these jerk marines make a bet on who can bring along the ugliest date. I mean, it’s absolutely horrible what they are doing for shits and giggles. It’s hilarious, though, that the guy who brings along a guy in drag doesn’t actually win the bet. Priceless. But slowly, just as River Phoenix, full of guilt, tries to make amends with ‘ugly duckling’ waitress Lili Taylor, he also gets to know her and starts to see the person inside…and likes her. Thanks to Taylor’s brilliantly judged, empathetic performance, the audience already loves her. She’ll break your heart even before she gets her own broken. It’s a helluva showcase for the talented actress, one of the best parts she has ever played in a film.
The late River Phoenix is just as crucial here, because if say schmuck co-star Mitchell Whitfield were playing the Phoenix part, the whole thing would fail. But because it’s Phoenix, we can see there’s more to this guy than just a cruel prankster like his pals. He really is sorry, and really does start to like Taylor, possibly sooner than he realises it himself. Phoenix’s innate sensitivity and pensiveness as an actor really do help make this one work. He and Taylor are both perfectly cast and make for an engaging pair once the douchebaggery of the opening gives way to something more endearing. Phoenix may get compared to James Dean and Monty Clift a lot, and there’s certainly cause for that here, but I see some young, anti-authoritarian Paul Newman in him here, too.
Is it a brilliant film? No, but it’s an unusual and very well-made film that finds a new avenue to explore in a pretty old subject matter of bored marines looking to have a good time. Good looking, and with nice 60s period detail too. Decent supporting cast as well, with a gamely toothless E.G. Daily, young Randy Quaid-ish Anthony Clark, and the somewhat Brando-esque Richard Panebianco particularly standing out. I’m surprised the latter never amounted to anything because, in addition to having that ‘Hey, where have I seen that guy before?’ vibe, he just seems to project that aura of bad boy/pin-up boy thing that normally results in at least a decent career as a heartthrob. Never panned out, though, he vanished into obscurity.
Maybe audiences at the time were turned off by the rather cruel ‘bet’, but there’s so much more to this film than that. It really shouldn’t have flopped. It’s actually a genuinely sweet, sensitive romance, with two very fine stars at the centre. Taylor will break your heart, and although she outshines him, the late River Phoenix (Who died at age 23. A fact I still can’t get around to accepting twenty years after his death) has one of his best parts. I do think the hairdos are overdone, though, even for 60s-era ‘ugly ducklings’. I also feel this is a rare film that could stand to be longer. It’s not a film about the Vietnam war, but one does feel it ought to have stretched that segment of the film out considerably, to have it resonate more. The last 15 minutes are jarringly rushed, and help stop this good film from being a great one.
Here’s an underrated film that might’ve passed you by. Give it a go, especially if you’re partial to Lili Taylor. The ending is simple, but nonetheless, it actually got to me, perhaps partly due to its simplicity. It’s a beautiful, quietly moving ending to a film that is much sweeter than it initially looks like being.