Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on April 12, 2017
To view Swingers click here.
That’s right, Swingers is twenty years old. Ouch.
Anyone who’s been in Los Angeles for more than a day or two can tell you it’s impossible to go anywhere without meeting people who want to be in “the business.” It’s a charming trait of the city when you first move here and try to make new friends, as you sort out who’s on the level about their ambitions versus those who are, well, completely full of it. No film captures that feeling better than Swingers, a semi-autobiographical film from 1996 that put several names on the map including writer and star Jon Favreau (whose experiences when he moved to L.A. inspired the script), director Doug Liman (who went the indie route to keep the writer and his friends attached) and a supporting cast including an almost unsettlingly young Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston and Heather Graham.
We’ve seen plenty of indie films about aspiring actors over the years, some good and others pretty unwatchable. However, Swingers (which is new to FilmStruck this month and part of a look at “The Lives of Actors”) was really one of the first to capture that peculiar dynamic among young people trying to make it in the 1990s golden age of indie film, setting up an approach to its characters posited somewhere between desperation and camaraderie. It’s a dynamic that can easily tip over into genuinely terrifying terrain, as seen in such films as Maps to the Stars and Starry Eyes (2014), but Favreau’s script smartly keeps it just on the other side of the fence where you never lose sympathy for the characters. A good example of this is the celebrated sequence in which Favreau’s character, Mike, makes an ill-advised late night call to a girl he met earlier that night. The succession of repeated voicemails and bumbling backtracks becomes increasingly uncomfortable and hilarious, ratcheting the audience’s discomfort through the roof with a skill worthy of the Hollywood masters. If you’ve ever had the chance to see this film in the theater, it’s exhilarating hearing the audience reacting with rising waves of nervous laughter and head slapping during this entire scene. However, consider how easily this one-man showcase could have turned his character into a terrifying psycho with just a slight tweak; if you’d had Ray Liotta doing the exact same scene with different vocal inflections, the result would be an instant thriller in the vein of Unlawful Entry (1992).
I didn’t come to L.A. until a couple of years after this film came out, but even then it still felt an awful lot like the world seen in this movie. The wannabe actors hanging out in diners, the angst over auditions, the mix of Type A and Type B propping each other up… it’s all real, and you can still see it today. You can see right from the outset that Favreau is writing from experience as a real struggling actor who had landed minor parts in films like Rudy (1993) and Batman Forever (1995), as well as a memorable gig as Eric the Clown on Seinfeld… but he wasn’t even remotely on track to leading man status. Of course, as we all know now, Favreau’s real success wouldn’t be as an actor – though any career that includes a role in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) must be doing something right – but as a director with hits in his future like the holiday classic Elf (2003), the Marvel hits Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010), the charming indie Chef (2014) and the live-action Disney versions of The Jungle Book (2016) and the upcoming The Lion King.
Apart from a couple of dated missteps (the Reservoir Dogs  aping is a little cringe-inducing now, and we all probably could’ve lived without that short-lived, pre-hipster swing music resurgence), Swingers still plays beautifully and somehow hasn’t worn out its signature use of “money” by acting MVP Vince Vaughn. Buddies with Favreau since their roles together in Rudy, Vaughn really owns this film with a part directly written for him and plays to every single one of his strengths with remarkable precision. He went on to star in several later comedies including the so-so Couples Retreat (2009), which he co-wrote and starred in with Favreau, but this is easily the signature Vaughn role. It’s a more delicate balancing act than it first appears as you can actually see the chinks in Vaughn’s character gradually widen through his demeanor and reactions up until the understated, but oddly emotional ending, which manages to find a sense of peace and optimism while putting Vaughn in his place just enough that you hope he’ll grow into a better person.
It seems odd today to think that this was the breakthrough film for Liman, who had only one title under his belt before this (the little-seen but interesting queasy comedy Getting In from 1994) and followed it up with the freewheeling semi-anthology, Go (1999). However, he’s now best known as the purveyor of high-octane action and sci-fi films like The Bourne Identity (2002), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Jumper (2008) and the woefully underrated Edge of Tomorrow (2014), also known as Live.Die.Repeat depending on where you see it. That last film is particularly encouraging as it shows Liman finding a nice balance between his blockbuster sensibilities and the perceptive humor and character development that characterized his earlier films, something I’d love to see more of in the future. Now in the comfort of your home home, you can kick back and savor one of the high points of the 1990s Miramax reign (from a golden year that also included Emma, Sling Blade, Trainspotting and Flirting with Disaster) as well as the beginning of one of the most engaging examples of real-life friends turning their dreams into a reality.
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