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By Amy Nicholson
The swing in Swingers is in the music and the talk--the self-consciously hip chatter of young men cruising clubs and dancing to big bands. Yet the story of this low-budget romantic comedy unfolds not in the '20s, '30s or '40s but in the '90s, this decade in which style seems to be defined by stripped-down imitations of earlier periods.
The circle of friends in Swingers are citizens of the "cocktail nation," a real-life L.A. subculture that is known here more familiarly as "lounge nation." Its ideal pose, for young men, would be somewhere between Lenny Bruce and Frank Sinatra--fast-talking but smooth.
The speech is a sort of modified hepcat lingo. "Money" is roughly synonymous with "cool"; an attractive young woman is a "baby," although this can also be a term of affectionate address to a friend. Socializing means hitting clubs like the Derby or the Dresden, followed by bull sessions at all-night diners. Video games are the only nod to the contemporary.
Within this milieu, Swingers presents an episodic plot built on the usual middle-class white-boy themes: Breaking up is hard to do, it's tough not to have a girlfriend, when all else fails, all you've got is your friends. Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script, plays Mike, a mostly unemployed actor and comic in Hollywood. Mike is a presentable, decent-enough sort, and there's no reason he couldn't have a new girlfriend other than his own longstanding funk over his breakup with a steady girlfriend back home in Jersey.
Who dumped whom is not entirely clear, but Mike acts like the dumpee. Heeding, with herculean effort, the excellent advice that any chance he has of winning her back depends on his not calling her, he instead compulsively checks his answering machine, even when he's out with a date to whom he's told his sad tale of woe.
The women Mike meets are touched by his sensitivity and pain, but it's his handsome, cocksure, happily shallow pal Trent (Vince Vaughn) that they want to sleep with. No matter, Mike's not really looking for casual sex anyway. He wants fresh romance. Trent assures him that it's his for the taking; he's "money." He just needs to get his confidence back.
That's the story. Trent and several other friends drag Mike to clubs, or to Vegas. They meet women. Mike screws things up, so his friends drag him somewhere else.
All of the actors are capable or better. Favreau isn't an especially exciting performer, but he's empathetic. When at last Mike spots the woman (Heather Graham), so dreamy he has no choice but to approach her, we root for him. Mike's friendship with Trent, however, is the heart of Swingers. The film would lack charge without Vaughn's swagger as Trent, and it would lack grounding if he were the star. As a safeguard against Trent's amiable sleaziness taking over the film, he's given a charming scene of deflation at the hands of a gorgeous "Peek-a-Boo Girl" (Maddie Corman). It's entirely believable that Trent would be an effortless ladies' man, and that Mike wouldn't, and that the two would be each other's indispensable friends.
It can be tiresome when young, plainly talented filmmakers can't come up with more compelling subject matter than this sort of lonely-slacker routine. But if Swingers is slight, it manages to be highly entertaining, probably because the extremely low budget forced director Doug Liman to toss aside any concern for visual polish or classy production values. Shooting the film himself, with a hand-held documentary camera, often while the locations were actually open for business, Liman concentrated on conversation and turned Swingers into a comic jam session for his young actors.
--M. V. Moorhead
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