Written By: Daniel Kinsley
For this writer, a film like Swingers (1996) is essential, especially during a tough time. On paper, the idea of a film about a couple of twenty-somethings navigating Los Angeles sounds so forgettable that potential viewers would be forgiven for rolling their eyes. Due however to the sharp writing, a wicked sense of humor, and lived-in performances, the film elevates the material into something that transcends familiarity, as recognition becomes its greatest strength; these could be your friends, your scene, and that is why it works so well. It would be a stretch to say that the film is about much beyond the usual concerns of 20 something men (that is: women, booze, talking shit); rather it is a portrait of the wonder years, a time that feels both utterly defining, yet totally mundane.
Jon Favreau reportedly wrote the script for the film in two weeks, loosely based on his own experiences. It’s a more impressive piece of writing when one considers that it’s one of the most quotable comedies to come out of the last twenty years (among them: “Vegas, baby, Vegas!” “You’re so money and you don’t even know it.”). Favreau plays Mike Peters, a comedian struggling to make the transition from New York to Hollywood. Despite being dumped some six months prior, Mike still holds a candle for his long-time paramour, Michelle. As the film begins, Mike is ushered back into the dating world by his friends, led by over-confident and mouthy Trent (Vince Vaughn). That is about it, in terms of plot. Fortunately, a great break-up film does not need a whole lot of plot; it only needs to say something that feels true, and this one gets a lot right. Early on, Mike turns to Rob (Ron Livingston) for counsel on what to do about Michelle, and much to his chagrin, is advised that whether he wants to move on or try to win her back, he cannot call her.
“See, Mike, the only difference between giving up and not giving up 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… At first you’re going to pretend to forget about her, you’ll not call her, I don’t know, whatever… but then eventually, you really will forget about her.”
“Well what if she comes back first?”
“Mmmm… see, that’s the thing, is somehow they know not to come back until you really forget.”
While his friends are eager to shower him with the new rules, Mike is a walking ball of flustered anxiety, confounded and frustrated by a scene he no longer wants to be a part of. Perhaps more than any other film this writer can recall, the most important detail it gets right is the dynamic between male friends. It feels so right, you almost expect to be sitting next to these guys on your next dive bar outing. From the way they relate to one another about personal and professional woes, to the merits of the instant replay button in an NHL video game; these arguments and late night soul-searching are immediately recognizable.
Jon Favreau plays a perfect straight man, frustrated by the lack of sense in the world now that he is adrift from a six-year relationship. He is all tightly-wound anxiety and discomfort, desperate to feel like he can connect with someone, or something, just to feel tethered to something again This is used to hilarious effect when Mike consults his friends about how long to wait to call a woman whose number he picked up in a bar. Trent and Sue (Patrick Van Horn) are split between two days (“Industry standard”) and three (“Everyone in town waits two days, so I think three days is kind of money”). Mike’s exasperation with their logic is hilarious, and he manages to blow it in an epic fashion with an excruciating series of rambling late night messages on her answering machine. It is a hilariously uncomfortable scene, and it is a great way to illustrate how totally out of his depth he is.
It is no surprise that the film made a star out of Vince Vaughn, as he toes a perfect line between obnoxious bro-isms (referring to women as “beautiful babies” and using “money” as an adjective) and true sincerity. In other words, he is the guy that can be your biggest source of anxiety and your loudest advocate. Every group of friends has a Trent, and anyone who’s ever needed a pep talk to approach a stranger will recognize his hilarious speech about not being like the guy in the PG-13 movie.
Like a lot of films about male posturing, people surely have (and will continue to) learn the wrong lessons from this film (High Fidelity , for instance surely remains misunderstood by a cavalcade of young men) as some will come out leaning into the swagger and labeling everything “money” and calling women “babies”, but they are missing the point of those relationships. It is not about the posturing or the bullshit; it is about the camaraderie, and having people who are willing to try to make you laugh, but are also willing to take your shit and stick by you until you are ready to feel better. Ultimately, though, the film is about the importance of friendship, and the ways in which we heal better when we don’t have to go through a painful time on our own.
Late in the film, when Mike meets Lorraine (Heather Graham) he finds himself worn down enough to finally lean into it, and suddenly he no longer appears to be miserable and bitter, but loose and self-deprecating, and he is damn funny. For him to succeed, he must eventually drop the macho bullshit Trent lays on him, and ignore the advice from Sue about when to call, and be himself. After he impresses Lorraine (and floors his buddies) with his moves on the dance floor (thanks to a ballroom class he took with Michelle), they share a few moments before parting ways, and it is the first time in the film that Mike looks able to relax. As much as the film is about the healing power of friendships, it is also about knowing when to go your own way, as some paths must be walked on no other terms but your own. Once Mike is able to shed both his former skin, and the one his friends drape on him, he finds that there is more life, after all.
True to his friend’s word, Michelle eventually does call, right about the same time that Mike is on the other line with Lorraine. Faced with the thing he has pined over for six months, he opts to tell Michelle he will call her back, and then never does. Later, when an incredulous Trent asks him why not, he says simply, “Didn’t occur to me.” Before Mike can explain the great epiphany that brought him here, there is a final payoff to all of Trent’s posturing about his way with the ladies that is both hilarious and knowing, a wink to the audience to let them know the film sees right through him. As for Mike, what finally hit him like a ton of bricks is not revealed, but it hardly matters. There is a whole world out there, and he has finally returned to it.