At 17 or so when I saw the film, this seemed both ridiculous and exactly the horrible sort of thing a bunch of thoughtess young men would come up with. Fortunately, director Nancy Savoca manages to thread the needle of what could have been an utterly brutal the male characters would have been irredeemable and manages to keep you hanging with them. While we understand what has occurred, the girls in the film (and they are mostly very young women) are spared any knowledge of the contest with a sole exception.
But, en route to the party, Phoenix's character begins to realize he actually likes this sweet, optimistic girl he;s escorting to the party, and after the fallout of her discovery - doesn't want to just make it up to her, he wants to make it a real date. Meanwhile, his pals go on a typical "Marines on the town" night that is shown in comparison as Phoenix and Taylor's night proceeds.
Maybe one of the most striking things about the film on a rewatch is how... true the dumb male behaviors are that Phoenix's character displays - and of the males we meet in the film, he's "the good guy". The endless swearing, the fury at any slight or perceived humiliation - and with nothing to lose, his desire to blow up the situation. Taylor's character has an inner life and her own desires, and there's an unspoken realization on Phoenix's part - reflected mostly in the polar opposite behaviors of his friends - that he has to be something better to be worth this person. She strives to be like Joan Baez or other folk singers and primed for the hippie movement to come, but she's also just out of high school, lives at home. As much as Phoenix believes he *must* be a badass (he's been told so by a recruiter), she believes in the power of music to change things. And, she's not wrong - it's a song that seals the deal for Phoenix as he considers Rose. But he also has to drop the affectations of young men to get there.
A lot in the film feels like it's implied rather than said - including the ending. His friends are dead (deeply implied), and whatever the unfocused rage was that carried him to the Marines (his friend's speech about how they all buy bullshit is maybe more relevant than is evident) - has been fought out of him. He sees the clowns in the bar across the street (literally a circus themed bar) still carrying on not unlike the guys he just lost, and finds the courage to go ahead and make that walk across the street to Rose's coffeeshop.
And the film ends before we really know what comes next. But it's also not the kind of movie that was promising a pat and happy ending. As they say - all stories have happy endings if you end them at the right point. But I think the notion is right - that he's at least giving a shot at being what he thought he could have been in that one night with Rose.
Watching a movie from 1991 is a reminder of the long shadow we grew up under as the Boomers rehashed Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination and their favorite music from their youth. Alicia Malone mentioned mixed critical reception at the time of the film's release about how the film tried to capture an era but didn't say the right things about it... but, I'll be honest. I checked out some of the comments on Wikipedia, and I think it sounds a lot like reviewers with a particular axe to grind had expectations (and there were plenty of films that raked the same subjects over the coals) instead of what the film was doing.
Frankly, as that young dude watching the film - it wasn't hard to recognize the behavior of young men. Maybe not my then current circle of drama nerds, but I'd been an athlete. I knew how guys could be. And certainly some of that surfaced again in college if you found yourself in the wrong circle of guys. But I rarely did. I didn't live my life by the film, but it was a piece of information I had that I'm not sure I otherwise might have - about recognizing cruelty. And, certainly, understanding that the bravado of a young man is utter bullshit to everyone else - including the right girl sometimes.
Anyway - it's not a masterpiece, and because it tells an awkward story about awkward people, skipping years inbetween in the 3rd act, is a bit strange, even. I do think there's a lot of ellipses in the story that ask the viewer to connect the dots without exposition helping them along, but it's all pretty much there. And a reminder of what meeting the right person at the right point can do to guide you along.
Bonus feature: look for a just-about-to-be-famous Brendan Fraser pop up for a two second shot in the middle of the movie.
*look, Lili Taylor is not anywhere near unattractive or even weird looking, so - kudos to the costume, hair and make-up people who manage to make her at least look like a lunatic when she comes out for the party.