“Dinner for Schmucks” may have officially been based on the French film “The Dinner Game,” but when I first heard about the plot, I immediately thought of “Dogfight.” The 1991 drama, directed by Nancy Savoca (“If These Walls Could Talk”), stars River Phoenix in one of his last major roles and Lili Taylor. Like “Dinner for Schmucks,” it’s about a game in which a group of terrible people compete to see who can find the most contemptible person. And in both films the protagonist ends up feeling bad about the game and starts to like and respect their victim.
In “Dogfight,” the setup involves guys finding the ugliest girl rather than the biggest idiot. Set in 1963 (with bookend scenes taking place years later), Phoenix is a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam who participates in a “dogfight” game with his buddies in the hopes of winning a cash pot. He meets a young frumpy waitress and convinces her that he’s interested and would like to take her to a party. Other marines are seen in their own ugly-girl pursuits, with one guy finding a thick Native American girl, another snatching up a tall, homely woman with glasses and another bringing a guy in drag.
Also like “Dinner for Schmucks” there’s something hypocritical about “Dogfight,” because the parade of fools seems to be done with some minor comedic intent. The drama also has a lot in common with Pygmalion-esque teen comedies like “She’s All That.” But “Dogfight” has a more genuine and believable nature to it, because Lily Taylor is not already a “hot” actress (though she’s not really ugly, either) being made to look unattractive with glasses and overalls. The character is also not given a makeover to try and show that she can be more physically appealing to both the protagonist and the film’s audience.
We can tell early on that in spite of her shyness and lack of good style that Taylor’s character, whose ironic name is Rose, is a very lovable person. She’s absolutely adorable in a montage set to Woody Guthrie’s “Hey Lolly Lolly” as she tries to find the right outfit to wear and how to do her hair for the party. From then on you fall for her just as Phoenix does, through how Taylor plays her with excitement, innocence, anger, regret and forgiveness, as well as the idealism and intelligence written into the role. Another favorite scene has her in a fancy restaurant with Phoenix, whose constant swearing she disapproves of. In her annoyance she shows the guy what it sounds like by cursing up a storm while ordering dinner.
“Dogfight” is a simplistic and straightforward coming of maturity story that hits a little too on the head by being set on the eve of Vietnam (both in terms of the literal military deployment in the film and the fact that the war wasn’t a big deal to the public yet) and the assassination of JFK. Phoenix is good, but Taylor’s performance really makes the whole thing worthwhile. This was a good start to a very strong decade for the actress as an indie film star.
If you haven’t seen it and you like “Dinner for Schmucks,” I recommend it.