Mike Peters (Jon Favreau) is a struggling actor/comedian who left both New York and his girlfriend of six years to find success in Los Angeles, leaving his girlfriend no choice but to break up with him. Now instead of finding success in the City of Angels, Mike’s found no acting work and is constantly down in the dumps over the split from his girlfriend. After dealing with his constant moping for six months, Mike’s friend Trent Walker (Vince Vaughn) is determined to take him out on the town in order to help him rebound.
From a narrative standpoint, Swingers is hardly fresh. 1982 had a similar film dealing with young men and their relationship issues, Barry Levinson’s Diner (a good portion of the scenes here also take place in diners). Much like the relationship between Mike and Trent, Kevin Smith introduced us to the Dante and Randal bromance two years earlier in 1994’s Clerks. Still, major credit goes to director Doug Liman (who also shot this film using a guerilla-style technique similar to what Mike Figgis did with Leaving Las Vegas) and writer/producer/star Jon Favreau for taking an overused genre and infusing it with great style and memorable dialogue.
Liman’s name may now be associated with action films (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Jumper, Edge of Tomorrow), but he got his start with indie films such as this and 1999’s Go. Even then, though, Liman gave his smaller films touches that showed he had a skill capable of handling the bigger films he would eventually go on and do. Despite its low-budget, Swingers is by no means a cheap-looking film. From the bright lights of Vegas, the catchy retro swing soundtrack (which backs up a beautiful climactic dance between Jon Favreau and Heather Graham) and a few clever visual nods to Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs (which are also given a ripoff self-awareness when one character admits “everybody steals from everybody” in reference to filmmakers), Liman’s style provides an exuberant thrill that complements Favreau’s screenplay perfectly.
Performing double-duty as screenwriter and star, Jon Favreau’s script is, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of this film. Like I said, we’ve seen more than our share of male camaraderie films before, but Favreau’s witty dialogue and what he brings to each character elevates it above being just another forgettable film within the genre. The dialogue is fresh, snappy and responsible for turning “money” into a catchphrase (“You’re so money, and you don’t even know it!”), but Favreau’s screenplay delivers more than just a series of mindless one-liners. Themes of friendship, the pain of lost love, the often ignorant impulses one might do to recover that lost love and the desperate measures some take to make it in showbiz are touched on here, and give the film some much needed heart and humanity.
Favreau also avoids coming off as self-aggrandizing, which is a risk any writer takes when making themselves the star of their own screenplay. He’s not the scene-stealer, and although his Mike Peters is a likeable character that we wanna see succeed, he doesn’t prop him up on a pedestal as the loveable lug surrounded by a bunch of obnoxious jerks. Each character is given at least a little glimmer of humanity that rounds them out, and Favreau isn’t afraid to be self-deprecating from time to time. In one of the film’s funnier moments, Mike, after receiving a girl’s number and is given a timeline by his friends on the “appropriate” time to call her, calls her immediately when he gets home late at night and leaves a series of bumbling messages that are meant to correct the previous one but only get more awkward as they come. Favreau pulls the scene off terrifically, blending great humor with a blend of heartbreak that has you genuinely feeling for the guy.
‘Cause who are we kidding? We’ve all done that before too.
The scene-stealer is, of course, Vince Vaughn, who like Favreau, Liman, and Ron Livingston (Office Space, Band of Brothers and The Conjuring) made a name for himself with this film (Steven Spielberg would later cast him in The Lost World after receiving a copy of this film in order to obtain the music rights to the Jaws theme). What would soon become Vaughn’s trademark cocky, rapid-fire delivery is on full display here. However, he’s got more layers to him than just being a sleazy, braggadocios tool, and in one scene where he defends Mike we see that, as misguided as his advice to him may be, he genuinely cares for his friend.
Of course, for as much as he’s all “baby” this and “baby” that, it’s still nice seeing him get served some humble pie in the final diner scene where his antics backfire on him.
Short on narrative, though not in laughs and heart, Swingers is brought to life by Doug Liman’s smart direction, Jon Favreau’s immensely quotable dialogue and strong characters, and most of all, the terrific comic timing and chemistry between Favreau and Vince Vaughn. The story arc may have been done to death a million times before and after it, but there’s a sharp tongue and perfectly-paced energy to this film that has, over time, rightfully turned it into one of the best cult hits out of the ’90s.