CULT CORNER: Swingers (1996)

Doug Liman and Jon Favreau team-up for the best buddy comedy of the 90s.

Who made it?: Doug Liman (Director), Jon Favreau (Writer/Co-Producer), Victor Simpkins (Producer), Independent Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, Patrick Van Horn, Alex Désert, Heather Graham, Deena Martin.

Tagline: “Cocktails First. Questions Later.”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

Swingers would be my first suggestion to any bloke coming out of a long-term relationship. It’s the movie equivalent of a mate telling you, “There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” If you’re not smiling by the time the Dean Martin-scored credits roll, you’re a lost cause. Not to give it any misplaced importance, but I’m pretty sure Swingers has saved lives.

In addition to being strangely therapeutic, Doug Liman’s effortlessly hip film is also a frank dissection of the lounge lifestyle, and became an instant cult sensation upon its release in 1996. Acquired by Miramax for an unprecedented $5 million, it propelled stars Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn into the limelight and became a rental favourite for Generation X. Its theatrical gross was only modest, but word of mouth has transformed Swingers into a bona-fide classic. The reason is simple: Swingers is a remarkably honest portrayal of male-female relationships, friendship and the Hollywood club scene.

Swingers is the story of hapless, out-of-work actor/comedian Mike (Favreau). A sorry soul, Mike has just moved to LA after ending a six-year relationship with the love of his life. Such experience has left him rather bitter, and his attempts to get back on the horse have fallen flat. Therefore, his best friend Trent (Vaughn) whisks him away to Las Vegas (“Vegas baby! Vegas!”) on the hunt for beautiful women and exciting nightlife. Unsurprisingly, Mike’s constant moping screws the pooch and the pair trudge back to LA. But the wild Trent won’t be deterred. With fellow singletons Sue (Patrick Van Horn), Rob (Ron Livingston) and Charles (Alex Désert), the group are determined to find that elusive perfect party and give Mike the night of his life…

If Swingers sounds like a lot of borderline misogynistic comedies, it really isn’t. Here is a film with the guts to treat its protagonists like the idiots they are. Men will laugh with them, women will laugh at them. On those terms, this is easily one of the more relateable Guy Movies in a decade that also gave us sugar-coated guff like American Pie (1999). The humour here is mined from more recognisable places, and underscored with a great deal of pathos. You might be surprised by how much you squirm during Swingers - there are moments that make you flash back to those booze-soaked nights on the town you’d rather forget.

Favreau made his screenwriting debut with the picture, and his work is some of most subtle in modern American comedy, boasting a deep understanding of the dating game. The old adage “write what you know” was clearly adopted by the comedian, since the film beats with a knowing pulse. Favreau put many of his real-life experiences into the script, and for much of the running time, Liman’s film bristles with an authenticity that would have been lost with a studio production. There’s no plot – like fellow cult hits Dazed and Confused (1993) and Clerks (1994), Swingers is very much a day-in-the-life affair more concerned with characterisation than meaningless punchlines. Since Favreau went through the same problems as Mike, the affair becomes fascinating to watch… akin to a speeding convertible that is always threatening to go off the road.

The script has a specific lingo that perfectly encapsulates 90s Hollywood, as well as bottling the cool swagger of the swing revival. Trent refers to women as “babies” and phone numbers are “digits.” But the most famous element of Swingers is their use of the word “money” as an adjective. “That’s so money.” “You’re money, and you don’t even know it” etc. It’s perfectly in keeping with the world Favreau has presented – Los Angeles is obsessed with the almighty dollar, and since the characters are chasing wealth, their use of the term is humorously subversive. Such self-conscious scripting has annoyed some modern viewers, but there’s no denying that it makes the picture distinctive.

LA culture may take plenty of hits, but the city is filmed in romantic fashion. Liman, who was also the cinematographer, lends a local’s eye to the endless parade of darkly-lit watering holes and diners. Despite a feeble production budget of $200,000, Swingers is full of great imagery. Most of the locations are real and were filmed during business hours, helping to give it that added boost of familiarity (people actually have to queue at bars here, unlike many movie establishments). One place is so cool and exclusive that the entrance is found in a backalley, with no sign above the door. There’s also a Rat Pack vibe creeping into every frame, with Frank Sinatra-themed clubs and jazz venues. Plus, LA perfectly sums-up Mike’s friends – they’re all trying to be something they’re not. Liman says this most directly in a blatant homage to the opening of Reservoir Dogs (1992), or later, when the gang enter a club via the kitchen in a nod to GoodFellas (1990).  But the characters are aware of the references.

The opening sojourn to Vegas quickly establishes who Mike is. Socially-dislocated, he finds it hard to fit into the casino atmosphere, especially since he only possesses $300, which he quickly loses in spectacular fashion. He’s a contrast to Trent – a smooth-talking dark horse, whose only concern, other than showing Mike a good time, is to score with the ladies. But the film never tips over into tired machismo.

We follow Mike from beginning to end, and his pitfalls are heart-wrenching for anyone who’s ever struggled to make it with the ladies. His attempts to get over his doomed relationship make us care for the character, especially since many of us will recognise ourselves. Favreau is pitch-perfect, making us invested in his arc. His chemistry with Vaughn is also key. Best buddies in real-life, their mutual respect for each other is right there on the screen, turning the film into a surprisingly mature rumination on the value of friendship. Vaughn delivers Favreau’s verbose dialogue with ease, often stealing the film. You get the impression that he could have been a fine actor based on the performance in Swingers… he’s never topped this.

Spurred on by Trent, Mike eventually breaks free of his mental torture in the last reel, in a wonderful sequence with a young Heather Graham. Noted swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy bring the primary plot thread to a close on the dancefloor. Like everything in this film, it’s undeniably cool and just a little larger-than-life. While a happy ending was perhaps a foregone conclusion, you feel like Mike has earned it, and Liman avoids the cheese by ending on the best gag in the movie. There’s something to be said about a film that leaves you with a smile on your face.

The lesson here is obvious: Be yourself. Relax. Roll with the punches. If Mike had been willing to let go of the past earlier, his life would have been easier. Swingers isn’t deep, and some may wonder what all the fuss is about, but if you’re looking for a buddy comedy that justifies the subgenre’s existence, this is it. Favreau and Vaughn have never been better (not even when they re-teamed for the bigger budget Made). Liman has never made a film more loveable (yes, even The Bourne Identity). And few films have captured a cultural movement as accurately. Swingers is a delightful picture that offers more than you’d expect. Wrapping life lessons into an irresistible brew, it will appeal to anyone who appreciates intelligent comedy, independent cinema, or even a film with a decent soundtrack. For twenty-somethings, it’s a cinematic Bible of Do’s and Don’ts, and a reminder to never give up.

What you’ve heard is true: Swingers is quite simply “money.”

Best Scene

While the short-lived stint in Vegas offers plenty of choice dialogue (“Double down!”), the best sequence is easily the most tragic. After claiming a woman’s number, Mike returns home and picks up the phone with disastrous results. After leaving what seems like an endless number of messages on her machine – each one getting progressively worse – he destroys whatever opportunity he had. This is as painful as it is hilarious, and it was no surprise to discover that the scene is popular in acting classes. If Favreau ever wins a Lifetime Achievement Award for acting, it’ll be this moment playing in the background.

Useless Trivia

  • A scene in the film required the use of the Jaws (1975) music. After Miramax optioned the movie, they had to clear the rights, which meant sending the film to Steven Spielberg. He not only gave them permission, but was so impressed with the film that he ended up casting Vince Vaughn in The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).
  • Vaughn’s father and Jon Favreau’s grandmother play the winners during the casino scene. This was filmed during business hours, and Deena Martin, who plays a waitress, was fired twice by the clueless staff.
  • Iron Man 2 (2010), which was directed by Favreau, includes the track “Pick Up the Pieces” by Average White Band. It was also featured prominently in Swingers.
  • Seth Rogen references the film in Knocked Up (2007) during the Vegas sequence, “You’re so money man!” The phrase has also been adopted in recent commercials for My Money Supermarket.
  • Trent’s license plate reads “THX1138″, a reference to George Lucas’s THX 1138.
  • Since the filmmakers couldn’t afford to pay extras, the scenes filmed at parties were filmed at actual parties that were taking place around Hollywood. Among the people in the crowd of the first party are screenwriters Stephen Gaghan and Mike White.
  • Favreau and Vaughn can also be seen together in Four Christmases (with fellow Swinger Patrick Van Horn), Couples Retreat and The Break-Up. In the latter, the tables are turned – Favreau is the one giving Vaughn advice.
  • The film was rated #57 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies.” It was also honoured at the 2007 Spike Awards.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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