Thursday, December 15, 2011

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Swingers (1996)

It’s funny the way movies change in our mindsover time.  The movies never change themselves; the film has been shot and the finished product will never be any different.  And yet, audiences change around the movie, and seeing a movie as a fifteen-year old will undoubtedly affect a person in a different way than when they see it a few years later or as an adult.  Films can be altogether different experiences from one year to the next.  Sometimes it’s better and more often it’s worse.  I can think of no better example, on a personal level, than the 1996 comedy Swingers.  I remember loving Swingers when I saw it because I thought it was cool.  I wanted to talk like those guys; I wanted to live their life.  But now, seeing it again, the coolness has faded into something a little more pitiful and the comedy is not so much in the deliberate humor as it is in the atmosphere in which these people exist.  I still greatly enjoy and appreciate the film, but on an entirely different level.
Our hero here is Mike (Jon Favreau), a downtrodden twenty-something living in Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming a comedian and an actor. Mike’s and his girlfriend split up some six months earlier, and despite moving across the country he has been unable to shake his feelings. Living in a ramshackle apartment, barely furnished, Mike spends his days talking about his ex and wallowing in his own depression. His closest friend, Trent (Vince Vaughn), is also an aspiring actor and is dead set on breaking Mike out of this funk. As the film unfolds, we find ourselves immersed in a world of twenty-somethings all discussing movies and their goals to become actors. They can see the bright lights, but they can’t get close enough to them. The quiet desperation of these characters is an element of the story I never fully comprehended when I saw Swingers as a teen. But now, as an adult, their desire adds an entirely different level to the narrative.

Trent – or “T” as he is affectionately called – drags Mike out of his apartment and off to Vegas in a first act that seems like a prologue to the film itself. It sets the stage in some great comedic moments. The two friends want to be high rollers, but their three hundred dollars doesn’t get them too far at the blackjack table (which happens to be a $100 minimum bet). They pick up a few waitresses working the graveyard shift and head back to the girls’ house, er, Airstream. T makes his moves on one; Mike pours his heart out to the other. This opening act is rich in character development and humor, and it is the greatest skill of Vince Vaughn which makes us comfortable with these guys immediately.  
The rest of the movie follows Mike, Trent, and their fluctuating circle of wannabe actor friends around various parties and coffee shops and nightclubs in LA.  They play video games at their friends house, a rockabilly boy named Sue (his dad was a big Johnny Cash fan) before making their fashionably late entrance into whatever party or scene is readily available.  The party starts at eight, so let’s eat dinner at ten and get their by eleven.  Midnight at the latest.  A running gag is that all the members of this crew take their own cars everywhere, arriving in a train of headlights. 
I took Swingers on a surface level as a youth.  These guys were cool and funny and I liked the way they said things.  Everything was “money” to me for a while afterwards.  But as an adult, there is a melancholy air floating around the comedy.  It enriches everything for me.  These guys are all trying their best to get that big break.  The screenplay from Jon Favreau is clearly told from personal experience, and that livens up a story that would otherwise ring false.  The irony here is that the film was the launching pad for Favreau, the director Doug Liman, and especially for Vince Vaughn, who would shape an up-and-down career around the motor mouth, cocky persona he creates with Trent.  Over the years, Swingers has changed drastically in my mind’s eye, from something of a throwaway comedy romp to a film about desire and desperation.  Because I know that, for the majority of these characters here, they will never get that big break for which they so greatly long.