Most films are set in New York or Los Angeles, but at least half of them are only doing it out of some kind of storytelling laziness that seems to decree that movies always happen in the same two big cities because they couldn’t happen anywhere else. However, there are also movies that fully use their home cities as characters, as fully integrated entities that affect the plot and factor into everything from dress to speech to worldview. Very few films bring such a firm and joyous sense of place to their story as Swingers does to its look at the lives of a group of twentysomething men in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. The film is resolutely set in a certain era and way of life, with writer and star Jon Favreau using his own time in the city as the basis for the screenplay. It’s an L.A. movie that gently sends up the stereotypes of young aspiring film professional in the city, even as it pays loyal tribute to the movies and directors so idolized by the man characters. What’s more, it’s easily one of the funniest and most genuine portrayals of male friendship on screen, from the impulsive flare-ups to the competition for conquest to the way these guys ultimately care about each other like family. It’s smart without being showy, and it’s heartfelt without being corny. It’s a true comedy, an entertaining dissection of life and love that mines heartbreak for humor and holds firmly to the notion that, eventually, despite all evidence to the contrary, things will work out.
“Somehow they know not to come back until you really forget.”
“There’s the rub.”
Mike (Favreau) is an aspiring actor and sometimes-comedian in Los Angeles, which is to say he’s like a lot of other people in town: He’s trying to forge a future out of a wholly created identity. Favreau and co-star Vince Vaughn discuss the concept of created identities and their key role in the lives of some Angelenos on the commentary track for the DVD, and they’re not wrong. The city so often seems to revolve around people trying to become something they’re not, but Favreau’s script also works to demonstrate that there’s a difference between being something you aren’t and becoming someone new. Mike is wildly neurotic and prone to worrying, and when the film opens he’s once again pouring his heart out to his friend Rob (Ron Livingston) about his ex, a girl that dumped him six months ago when Mike moved out west from New York. Rob is a fellow transplant who knew Mike back east, and as such he’s the one who does the most acclimating to the new city over the course of the film, learning the lingo and eventually becoming part of Mike’s larger circle of friends. But at the beginning, it’s just Mike and Rob in a diner, talking about the ones that got away and the ones that just ran away, with Mike content to keep working over the same emotional ground until Rob says the first of many things that will eventually help Mike turn things around: “You can’t do anything to make her want to come back.” In the film’s dynamic, Rob is the one who becomes part of the city, but Mike is the one on a tougher emotional journey, a guy getting over his first real love and doing it in a city that seems to be going out of its way to beat him professionally and personally.
“I’m gonna make Gretzky’s head bleed for super-fan number 99 over here.”
But it’s that circle of friends that gets Mike through the worst of his blues, and also provides his character with a static backdrop against which his maturation is easily measured. The film is basically a series of connected vignettes and conversations about hanging out, going out, and trying to figure out the meaning of life when you’re young. (Favreau was 30 when the film was released, and Vaughn just 26.) Mike hangs out with Trent (Vaughn) and Sue (Patrick Van Horn) and Charles (Alex Desert), bringing Rob along as they go to clubs and chase girls. Director Doug Liman wisely chooses to play the film small and straight, emphasizing its modest scale and relational honesty instead of trying for something broader, and Favreau’s script is fantastic at the way it portrays a group of men at once willing to fight over Sega Genesis NHL Hockey and also serve as wingmen and brothers in arms in the great battle of trying to make it in Hollywood. At the same time, Mike is given an arc the others aren’t, and while Sue and Trent are relentlessly confident throughout the film, Mike’s charged both with regaining his ability to talk to women and his desire to find something deeper than the casual relationships Trent is preaching. Most of the first act unfolds in Las Vegas, where Trent takes Mike to try and get the man’s head cleared of thoughts of ex-girlfriends — despite Mike’s contention that midnights to six on a Wednesday is the “skank shift” — but even when they pick up a couple of willing cocktail waitresses, Mike would still rather check his messages then get it on with a stranger. Trent gives him some expected chiding for it, but the point of the sequence isn’t to make Trent look (overly) horny or to make Mike look soft; it’s to show one guy growing and his friend supporting him, but the emotion is masked in humor and ease. These guys screw with each other, but they’re also smart enough to know they’re in the trenches together, and at one point Sue and Trent give Mike a pep talk to try and get him over the hump:
But the film is also at heart an L.A. film, a comedy about the weird ins and outs of the city that’s set among its characters’ favorite haunts. When the boys roll out to the Dresden for drinks, they’re actually shooting at the bar and restaurant on Vermont Avenue in Hollywood, where the lounge act really is a couple named Marty & Elayne doing jazz covers of pop songs. (They perform “Stayin’ Alive” in the film, and I’ve also been privileged to hear them do a horribly catchy version of “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” Seriously.) They shoot golf at the par-3 in Los Feliz, they talk about getting chicken and waffles at Roscoe’s, and they drink and dance at the Derby. All the while, Mike gives Rob pointers about living in Los Angeles that have been earned by actually being here, like the one about how all the best bars in Hollywood have no signage. Additionally, Favreau has his men hold forth on the directors they admire or despise, but he and Liman also build in tributes to the very scenes the characters rant or rave about, whether it’s the guys walking in profile in a nod to Reservoir Dogs or the tracking shot as the enter the rear of the Derby that’s a direct callback to a conversation they had about GoodFellas not long before. Swingers is a film completely of its time and place, both aware enough of its surroundings not to take them too seriously but happy enough to be where it is to mount a solid defense of the town.
“Our baby’s all growns up.”
Swingers is one of those movies that’s become a sliver of the pop culture consciousness without ever really making a splash about it: It opened in fall 1996 on eight screens to about $74,000, topping out the next spring at around $4.5 million, meaning most of its viewers and fans discovered it on video or DVD. And yet despite that, it put Favreau and Vaughn on the map, as well as gave a leg up to a young Heather Graham a year before she got even bigger with Boogie Nights. It’s thoroughly watchable and eminently quotable, even if Trent’s “You’re money” catchphrase burned out pretty quickly. (It was even given a brief but not unkind jab a decade later in Knocked Up.) But it comes by its flaws earnestly, thanks to Favreau’s heartfelt script about what it means to grow up and move on and piece everything together. The guys at the heart of the story create one of the most natural and believable groups of friends seen on film, and all the hell Mike puts himself through is worth it when he gets a wake-up call from Rob about the importance of enjoying life again. Mikey doesn’t know how things will end, but he still nods and says, “You’re a good friend.” And then they head out.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Swingers / Daniel Carlson
Pajiba Blockbusters | October 21, 2008 | Comments ()