A film review by Craig J. Koban
10th Anniversary Retrospective
1996, R, 95 mins. Mike: Jon Favreau / Trent: Vince Vaughn / Rob: Ron Livingston
10th Anniversary Retrospective
1996, R, 95 mins.
Mike: Jon Favreau / Trent: Vince Vaughn / Rob: Ron Livingston
“There's nothing wrong with letting the girls know that you're money and that you want to party.”
- Trent (Vince Vaughn) in SWINGERS
SWINGERS understands the essence of the male, Generation X psyche better than any film that I know. The fact the film also manages to be brutally hilarious so often during its moments of keen introspection are its ultimate high points. There have been many films that have chronicled the comings and goings of the twenty-something male, but what makes SWINGERS special is just how smart and observant it is with defining what makes a guy...a guy.
Most comedies revolving around teens and young adults are lucky to have any brains in their heads. Too many modern films with this subject matter substitute bodily fluid jokes and pratfalls for well realized characters and dialogue. SWINGERS is a film with a decidedly refreshing outlook on young men. While watching it (even after numerous viewings), I am amazed at (a) how much I laughed through it and (b) how those laughs are usually the bi-product of the film’s highly observant impulses about what makes men tick.
SWINGERS was one of the first films that I recall seeing that really understood the general malaise that a considerable amount of young men go through. The journey through one’s twenties is a scary and intimidating venture. Things seem so distinctly simple and easy-going when you’re a teenager, but when you make the transition into adult-life, a sense of mortality starts to kick into overdrive. Men at this time spend as much time having self-doubt as they do partying and looking as “money” as possible in front of all the “beautiful babies”. What SWINGERS does so well is that it does not pander down and give us one-dimensional and witless characters that serve the purpose of propelling the jokes. The guys in the film are a eclectic breed, to be sure, but they all have their individual personality quirks, which is why I think they feel more real than a lot of other male characters in comparable films.
The most lasting impression that this film gave me when I watched it for the first time on home video in 1996 is the fact that I readily identified with its men. Watching them bond in the film I was struck by continuing thoughts. I know these guys, I kept telling myself. More importantly, many of the characters are sympathetic. Any man who has faced constant rejection, a lack of job prospects in his chosen career path, and a highly troubled and rocky break-up with their girlfriend should have no problem relating to the main persona in the film. That’s the subtle brilliance of the movie – it has a sweetness and vulnerability to its characters, even when they behave and make decisions that are incredibly cringe-inducing.
The film was obviously written by someone who knows impeccably how young dudes talk and think. The then young Jon Favreau (who himself at the time was a struggling young actor trying to make end’s meat) was the engineer of SWINGERS' screenplay. For a novice script, it’s remarkably assured and confident. Obviously, Favreau wrote from what he knew, which is life itself. He created distinct personalities that, no doubt, were spawned from actual friends he knew and after spending countless hours in coffee shops, nightclubs, and lounges with these same men. All the guys feel like confidants you may have had. There is the shy, introverted, and inquisitive guy; the razor-sharp and fast talking confident wise ass; the sensitive guy with a willingness to offer answers; the hot tempered and pugilistic guy…and so on and so on. Again, Favreau knows that there is more to young men than parties and babes. The fact that he manages to find time for them to speak and reveal their feelings is noteworthy. Men, you know, are insightful and have feelings too, despite what many women have told me.
For instance, take the main character of Mike (played well by Favreau). He is arguably the most sympathetic of all of the film’s men. He has just moved out to LA with high aspirations of a long career as a stand-up comedian and movie star. Unfortunately for him, life has not gone from rags to riches with the speed he had hoped for. He misses his New York home and has failed to score any big jobs since moving to the west coast. He – alongside his other acting buddies – is so desperate for work that he’ll even reduce themselves to playing Goofy at Disneyland (one friend even fails to land that job). Worst of all, poor old Mike has just gone through a nasty break-up with his New York girlfriend and is heartbroken.
However, he is not one of those male chauvinist pigs that one would think the screenplay would make him. Mike does not take the break-up with a grain of salt, nor doe he “go on the prowl” hoping to score with as many available, non-monogamous women as he can. No, Mike is melancholy and distraught. He feels miserable and misses his past flame horribly. He shuts himself off from most of the outside world. Even when his support group of friends try to cheer him up, it’s usually at a loss. The healthiest thing for Mike to do is to get over his past relationship and get on with life. Alas, SWINGERS understands that, for some men, forgetting is hard and – more importantly – getting on with life by finding a new relationship while trying to forget an old one is even harder.
Some of Mike’s friends genuinely feel his pain and understand his grief. It’s invigorating to see two men in a movie talk about loss so sincerely. Mike’s one buddy, Rob (the underrated Ron Livingston) demonstrates a devoted ear and listens to Mike’s woes, but he also manages to offer up some important – and truthful – advice. "The only difference between giving up and not giving up," Rob explains to Mike, “is if you take her back when she wants to come back. But you can't do anything to make her want to come back. In fact, you can only do stuff to make her not want to come back.” There is an odd, paradoxical veracity to Rob’s words that even the fatalist in Mike understands. Often, when you want a woman to come back into your life she won’t and when you don’t want them back – and no longer give a damn about them – then they do come back.
Some of Mike’s other friends are not so supportive on practical levels. One in particular, Trent (played in a break-out performance by Vince Vaughn) thinks that the key to getting Mike out of his funk is to party and get laid. Trent is really an original creation, a man that has boundless optimism and an energy that is kind of infectious, even when he is being aggravating. Even more appealing (and funny) is the manner with which he uses unique colloquialisms that seem born out of his experiences in LA. Trent uses the term money as an adjective…a lot. “You're so money and you don't even know it, “ he lashes out to the hapless Mike.
He is a good chap in the sense that all he really wants is for his friend to be happy and productive, but it’s just that a few of the things he does in front of Mike are incredibly embarrassing. At one particular point during a late night trip to Las Vegas Trent flirts with a cute waitress as to show Mike how to meet “babies.” He places a drink order with her, along with some advances (“Um... a malt Glen Garry for me and my friend here. And if you tell that bartender to go extra easy on the water, this 50 cent piece has your name on it.”). Mike cowers in utter discomfiture, but Trent thinks he has scored (“Baby, that was money! Tell me that wasn't money. She was smiling at how money I am, baby.”).
Amazingly, Trent does manage to hit it off with the waitress, to the clear amazement of Mike. Soon, Trent even manages to round up a “beautiful baby” for Mike as well. Mike seems elated with the prospects. Trent has some advice to make the night for both of them go well. “All I do is stare at their mouths and wrinkle my nose, and I turn out to be a sweetheart, “ he tells Mike. He goes on further to warn him, “You take yourself out of the game, you start talking about puppy dogs and ice cream and of course it's going to end up on the friendship tip.” Mike seems to understand, but when both of them eventually meet up with the girls, Mike fails miserably. He ends up breaking the cardinal number one rule of hooking up with ladies – never blubber on about old girlfriends. Well, blubber he does, to Trent’s consternation.
When the two arrive back to LA Trent seems even more bound and determined to get Mike a new girlfriend, and he enlists in the help of Rob and their other friends, Sue (Patrick Van Horn), and Charles (Alex Desert). This, of course, means cleaning Mike up, getting him out of his darkened apartment, and hitting the nightlife. Trent offers up more pertinent advice for the struggling Mike (“I don't want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie everyone's really hoping makes it happen. I want you to be like the guy in the rated R movie, you know, the guy you're not sure whether or not you like yet. You're not sure where he's coming from. Okay?”). At one point they arrive at a pub where Mike sees a girl that sparks his interest. Trent and Sue go on full motivational speak mode and try to egg Mike on. “You know what you are? You're like a big bear with claws and with fangs," Trent tells him, to which Sue adds, “Yeah, man just kinda... you know, you got these claws and you're staring at these claws and your thinking to yourself, and with these claws you're thinking, how am I supposed to kill this bunny, how am I supposed to kill this bunny?" Reaching in to grab a hold of his troglodyte impulses, Mike goes in “for the kill” and actually gets the girl's phone number.
Now what? Mike has been out of the saddle so long that he does not know when to call. “Two days is like industry standard,” Sue tells him. When the night wears thin and the men go their separate ways Mike arrives home and ponders his next move. What occurs next is one of the most distressing scenes I have ever seen. Mike decides (blast him!) to call the girl prematurely before the “industry standard” time, but is cut off abruptly by the her answering machine. What does he do? He calls back, gets the machine again, and explains what he was trying to say the first time and build up the courage to ask her out until…the answering machine cuts him off again. The scene snowballs miraculously from bad to worse as the foolish Mike calls her back over and over and over again and leaves her message upon message. After what appears to be his fifth or sixth message (I lost count), the girl picks up and tells Mike (who she thinks is a vile stalker) to never call again. Never has a man been show hitting absolute rock bottom while trying to woe a woman as much as with this scene with Mike. I felt like covering my eyes in horror while watching Mike blunder his way to asking the woman out. It's that painful.
Again, it's scenes like this that are the essence as to why SWINGERS is a success. It knows that men make mistakes, often when their hearts (and not their heads) do the talking. It also does not make the men look like sex-starved losers who only care about scoring. Well, some of them do, but Mike is a generally appealing and likeable guy who has real problems. He is the film’s everyman and most men that have gone through similar problems should easily relate. Viewers should also relate to all of his steady string of friends, who offer up advice of varying quality and overall effectiveness. Trent may be a bit of a condescending lout at times, but he cares for Mike and wants to see him get better. Even when he does things that seem questionable and dubious, Trent also comes across as an affable guy. He emerges as an effective foil to Mike throughout the film. Whereas Mike can’t muster up a few syllables to women throughout most of the film, Trent has an effervescent charm and charisma and launches himself into monologues that would make Quentin Tarantino envious.
SWINGERS still manages to have some hearty laughs during all of its more observant moments. There is a hilarious scene that shows all the men playing Sega video game hockey before a big night out. Their trash talking is lively, inventive, and colorfully insulting (as a young man I can attest that this film is absolutely correct in revealing that the only time men can call each other every nasty word in the book without actually hurting feelings is during completive video games). There is also a funny moment where Trent tries to pick up a girl and while talking to her he realizes that she is not made for him (John Williams’ JAWS theme creeps on to the soundtrack in the background).
Then there is the film’s largest in-joke. All of the guys are gathered around a table with a swirling camera rushing past them. The fact that there are RESERVOIR DOGS posters on the walls of the apartment is no sheer coincidence. At one point one of the men speaks his mind on the relative worth of Tarantino’s films to…say…Martin Scorsese’s films. He states that all Tarantino does is copy the best of Scorsese. Mike responds that “everyone copies” at some point. The very next shot is - aesthetically - the very same-angle, slo-mo recreation of the Reservoir Dogs opening with the characters of Swingers replacing Tarantino's gang of rough necks.
Miramax films made Tarantino’s first big film, so it’s of no surprise to see that they were also behind SWINGERS as well (at the time, they were the king of the independents). Shot on a shoestring budget of $250,000, directed by a novice (Doug Liman, who went on to do films like GO, THE BOURNE IDENTITY, AND MR. AND MRS. SMITH) and written by first-time writer Favreau, SWINGERS could be seen now as a bit of a gamble. It became such a critic darling when it was released at film festivals that it was the subject of bidding wars among the studios. Miramax finally coughed up $5 million and the rest was history.
The movie itself was shot by Liman by the seat of his pants, it seems. In the audio commentary for a recent Special Edition DVD Liman recounts how little money they had, which necessitated them to be highly resourceful and crafty. Many party scenes were filmed at real parties and several moments were completed without the use of film permits. The car that Favreau and Vaughn drove (1964 Convertible Mercury Comet Caliente) was Vaughn’s real life car, and several scenes in the opening of the film in a Las Vegas casino were done so illegally that the crew was ejected numerous times by the local police. If anything, SWINGERS was truly indicative of guerrilla filmmaking.
Watching the film again recently is to bare witness to the emergence of two fine young talents. Vaughn and Favreau have such an effortless chemistry and feed off of one another so well. Their relationship in the film feels palpable and real (it does not hurt that the two are friends in real life). Vaughn himself is the film’s real show-stopper, and his penchant and incredible skill for throwing out verbal zingers and speeches of such maddening complexity and logic seem to be staples of his appeal to this very day. He crafted and molded his ability to do mile a minute rants and engage in slippery word play in SWINGERS and would later hone and perfect it in future films like MADE (also co-starring and co-written by Favreau) and most recently THE WEDDING CRASHERS and THE BREAK-UP. Yes, Vaughn has been effective in dramatic films post-SWINGERS (like THE CELL), but comedy is his real calling.
SWINGERS is like a wonderfully funny tone poem to the troubled, arrogant, and beleaguered Generation X male, and after re-visiting the film it still stands up as one of the funnier and socially aware films of the 90’s. The film is a smorgasbord and virtual plethora of things men in their twenties say and do in order to get out of a hasty mid-life crisis. To pawn the film off as a simple buddy flick or screwball comedy does not do it justice at all. If anything, SWINGERS is a self-assured, wonderfully acted, and well-crafted film that offers up what I think is one of the most interesting and realistic depictions of male friendships and bonding. It is nail biting in terms of its sarcastic humor, but there is an undeniable honesty that permeates the film. The main character of Mike has real problems with insecurity, rejection, depression, and an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and sometimes the truth that his pals offer up hurts, but its there to ultimately help. Chock full of sidesplitting hysterics and a judicious commentary on the young male ego and mindset, SWINGERS still manages to elevate itself beyond the realm of mindless sex comedy. The film has emerged as an irrefutable cult classic over the last few years and for good reason.
To take a page out of Trent’s playbook, “It’s still so damn money!”