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Swingers (1996)

by on 2011/02/06

“You don’t look at the things that you have, you only look at the stuff that you don’t have.  Those guys are right about you.  You’re money.”

* * * * *

I have a good friend whom I don’t see often enough.  If he didn’t recommend Swingers to me, he might as well have.  Debonaire and dependable, I’ve rarely heard him criticize anything.  The Inuit are said to have many words for snow.  This friend has just as many words for praise.  I can imagine him saying this movie is “mint” and that it “rocks”.

And he’d be right on both counts.  It is mint, and it does rock.

Swingers is one of those rare romantic comedies by, for, and about men . . . men who don’t really understand anything about women, especially when they think they do.  I’d seen it near its release, but didn’t enjoy it much.  I’ll readily admit, mine was an egregious lapse in judgment.

I could attribute that lapse to a couple of possibilities.  First, these protagonists are more social creatures than I am, perhaps having made it difficult for me to relate to them.  Second, I may have reacted badly to its Johnny-come-lately cocktail decoration.  As a long-time fan of exotica, lounge, and space age pop, the so-called swing revival of the late Nineties was a little hard to take seriously.

However, when I tried again a second and even third time, I found Swingers to be as insightful as entertaining, a modest gem worthy of recognition and recommendation.  Directed by Doug Liman (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), it features writer, star, and future director Jon Favreau (Elf) as somber Mike, Vince Vaughn (Four Christmases) as the hyperactive Trent, and Ron Livingston (Going the Distance) as the down-to-earth Rob.  Their “struggling actor” portrayals are roles based on their own true experiences and friendships.

Against a backdrop of gambling, golfing, and video gaming, their wannabe Rat Pack subverts any metrosexual stereotype with playful aggression, forced extroversion, and compulsive nightspot-hopping.  Five friends wend their way between Los Angeles’ bars, clubs, and diners, each in his own car, suggesting an aspiring actor’s life is not much of a struggle at all.

Their greatest challenge:  helping Mike get over Michelle, the ex-girlfriend who abruptly left him after their six years together in New York.  While Rob speaks calmly and rationally, Trent embodies action.  While the former’s supportiveness is obvious, the latter’s is less clear.  Vaughn’s character comes across as an offensive boor who condescends to, and even infantilizes, his comrades and conquests alike.  He refers to himself as “Daddy”, to all women as “babies”, and to anything he likes as “money”.

The freeform plot is less driven by calculation than character.  Caught in a limbo between relationships, Mike’s path meanders through a variety of shallow diversions, including casinos, Tiki lounges, and night clubs.  Still, some startling moments mark his purgatory:  spending fifteen bills for three casino chips; watching the not-so-nice guys win; seeing a possible future in the has-beens — or never-weres — entertaining at the bars he frequents.

Trent defends their aging hipsterism to Mike, saying “Guys like me and you got to kick it here, old school.”  We hear the occasional funk tune, but their world is rife with old jazz, new swing, and AM country standards.  They derive their sense of cool from being the alternative to Alternative, their confidence about women, and (ahem) dissecting their favourite films.

In fact, the medium seems as familiar with pop culture as its message.  References to Reservoir Dogs abound:  the story Trent tells his would-be dates, his Mr. Blonde poster, and the five friends walking the streets in an oddly familiar slow-motion.  Similarly, a discussion of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is followed shortly after by a long tracking shot between the L.A. streets and an indoor concert.

Trent even references Swingers itself, telling 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.”

This particular Rated R movie, is not without flaws.  Mike’s protests of “I’m not going to Vegas!” are repeated emphatically enough to telegraph the coming trip with all the subtlety of a sitcom.  I also disliked the scenes which suggested these friends have issues with homophobia.  I’ll chalk them up to character flaws I hope were not carried over from the real life experiences of Favreau, Livingston, and Vaughn.

Although there’s less “geek chic” than “lounge lizard” here, I was drawn to this piece by its director, stars, and independent spirit.  More fun than a date with someone on the rebound, Swingers left me as impressed today as unimpressed a decade ago.  At some point in the last ten years, it seems this Daddy picked up a sense of humour.

And that’s just so money, baby.

* * * * *

Rated R/14A for adult situations and language

96 minutes

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