"Dogfight" (citywide) is two characters in search of a film. And very fine characters they happen to be, as winsome a pair of young people as anyone would ever want to meet. Which makes it all the more a wonder that their on-screen adventures can't seem to go anywhere at all.
It's not that "Dogfight" doesn't have any story. In fact it has two, but neither one has anything like the weight of a feature, and the connection between the two is too tenuous for even a director as capable as Nancy Savoca (making her first film since the much-lauded "True Love") to bridge.
Set largely in 1963, "Dogfight" initially introduces us to "the Four Bs," a group of gung-ho Marines with a last night in San Francisco on their hands before they head off to a little-known place called Vietnam. Berzin, Benjamin, Buele and Birdlace decide to kick the evening off by participating in what is apparently a Marine ritual of long-standing: the dogfight.
To take part, each Marine puts in $50 and goes in search of the out-and-out ugliest woman he can find. The money goes toward renting a nightclub, where the women, who know nothing of what's going on, are rated by judges. The Marine with the most off-putting date is given the rest of the money, and no one is supposed to be the wiser.
The first 20 or so minutes of "Dogfight," which could be lopped off the whole and serve as a perfectly satisfying and self-contained short film, focuses on the gathering of the women and the outcome of the dogfight. Working from Bob Comfort's script, Savoca, who displayed a fascination with mating patterns in "True Love," is more than up to the comic-horrific task of putting this retrograde ritual on screen, underlining the callousness of the manipulation involved but carefully avoiding the use of too heavy a hand.
Corp. Eddie Birdlace is played by River Phoenix, and it is his search for the perfectly horrible date that the first part of "Dogfight" (rated R for pervasive strong language and a sexual scene) focuses on. After a few false starts, he zeroes in on a dowdy waitress named Rose, a budding young folk singer who carries around a few too many pounds. Though Rose is initially suspicious (who wouldn't be), she finally agrees to accompany the persistent young Marine to what may well be the first party she's ever been invited to.
Playing Rose is Lili Taylor, an exceptional young actress who played a schizoid vagabond in "Bright Angels" and the rambunctious Jojo in "Mystic Pizza." Experienced with unconventional characters, Taylor, who put on weight for the role, manages to be more than just appropriately homely and awkward as the loveless Rose. She is also adept at showing Rose's strength, at projecting the unexpected feistiness and wit that life, if not always the movies, teaches us appears in all kinds of packages.
Those character traits are important because not only is the dogfight soon over, but all mention of it quickly disappears from the screen. In its place comes the film's second short feature: Rose and Birdlace Go Out on a Date.
Given that Taylor and Phoenix are two of the most capable and emotionally open young actors around, the blossoming of their relationship is very much of a treat to watch, heart-tugging and unexpectedly funny. But, given the fact that the script quickly forgets all about his callousness and her frumpiness, their interaction lacks any kind of dramatic center. Yes, it is utterly charming to see two people fall in love, but in the context of a movie, you want something more, and this "Dogfight" (unless you count a particularly awkward coda) is ill-prepared to supply.
Even given its many affecting virtues, "Dogfight" will probably be a disappointment to fans of Savoca's "True Love." Though its themes--such as the difficulties men and women face getting on the same wavelength--are pretty much the same, that first film was edgier, more realistic, more energetic than what we have here. The studio system doesn't necessarily kill strong independent talent, but it does have a tendency to subtly bland it out. That hasn't happened to Savoca here, but there are enough hints to make it something to worry about for the future.
River Phoenix: Birdlace
Lili Taylor: Rose
Richard Panebianco: Berzin
Anthony Clark: Okie Buele
Mitchell Whitfield: Benjamin
Holly Near: Rose Sr
Released by Warner Bros. Director Nancy Savoca. Producers Peter Newman and Richard Guay. Executive producer Cathleen Summers. Screenplay by Bob Comfort. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Editor John Tintori. Costumes Eugenie Bafaloukos. Music Mason Daring. Production design Lester W. Cohen. Art director Daniel Talpers. Set designer Sarah Stollman. Set decorator Jessica Lanier. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (pervasive strong language and a sexual scene).