Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Movie Review: Swingers

Show Me The You're So Money, Baby


      Imagine the year is 1996. Los Del Rio's Macarena and Blackstreet's No Diggity are dominating the music charts. The Spice Girls are infuriating every teenage boy who is just beginning to experiment with the opposite sex. Independence Day annihilates the Summer Box Office and convinces me that being dropped off six hours before it screens is an ingenious way to spend six hours. Everyone is "being showed the money!" in inappropriate outbursts to flex their obnoxious Jerry Maguire muscle. The Summer Olympics are being held in Atlanta. Ebay has just launched. Sadly, Ask Jeeves follows suit. No one knows who the hell Justin Bieber is.
      Now, I suggest you purge all this pop culture data from your consciousness to reflect on another more discreet and lesser-known formative development. That touchstone of pop culture cool, ingrained deep in the minds of every male from the age of 17 to "I'm not that old" arrives in limited theaters poised to educate all partygoers on what clubs may or may not be "dead anyway:" The debut of Swingers or what nostalgic folk recognize as a fitting love letter to the 90s. 
      Wingmen are cool if they embrace their proper social role i.e. distract her friend and move on. Wannabe actors not gainfully employed by the Hollywood system have to realize the life of a hustling thespian ain't so glamorous. Spontaneous relationships are formed and deformed in the aftermath of Mike's (Jon Favreau) and Michelle's (Whichever women voiced her) off-screen breakup. Spastically calling a woman the same night you meet her is a big NO! NO!, and possibly the gateway to becoming a stalker. Heather Graham's casting in Boogie Nights makes a whole lot more sense. Trips to Vegas are encouraged and discouraged in equal measure. Doubling down is a mandate far greater than anything Congress could levy. Trents "all around the world" (sing it as Sugar Ray did the following year) are emancipated from their cultural stigma and allowed to accept their vulgar importance in the male unit. NHLPA Hockey '93 is still consuming every ounce of blood from gamers. Woman you may think are strangely flirting with you are actually performing their maternal function. Brandishing guns ain't necessary unless you're a Blood, a Crip, or an extra in a music video. The quintessence of cool, of male camaraderie, of smoothing out life's complications with chicken and waffles, is crystallized in one catchall title. Swingers. Tom Haverford of Parks and Recreation could not lease that much swag.(1)
     Swingers is about the lives of single, unemployed actors besieged by the enchantment of Hollywood's uncertain spell during the '90s swing revival. Mike, an East Coast, New York convert, has recently terminated a six-year relationship with his long-time girlfriend (six months have elapsed), and is experiencing considerable difficulties adjusting to single life. His friends, Trent (Vince Vaughn), Rob (Ron Livingtston), Charles (Alex Desert), and Sue (Patrick Van Horn), each beset by their own career or personal struggles, coach Mike on the rules of bachelorhood, attempting to assuage insecurities he's succumbed to from self-perceived professional and romantic shortcomings.


      Directed by Doug Liman and his desperate imperative to forge something palatable after an abomination of a first-feature, Swingers represents a miracle of artistic design. The $200,000 budget forbade any instinct to conceptualize big, lavish environs as production sets had to abide economically. Capturing the extravagant neon artifice that is Vegas and the alluring charms of a Los Angeles consumed by its predatory zeal requires flush pockets, but Liman and crew demonstrate that a maverick spirit, penchant for guerrilla filmmaking, and dialogue-centric script could offset any budgetary constraints. A lack of permits can be creatively negotiated, too, if one is willing to risk a date with the penitentiary.  
      Stylistically the film is quite simple. That's not a bad thing. The great Japanese filmmakers, namely Yasujiro Ozu bequeathed the lesson of simplicity, preaching simplification of image and delicacy of tone. Configuring these lessons coherently and with grace demands the conviction of a disciplined artist. As earmarks to a purer form of art, tonal deviations have to be dispensed only when the narrative commands it. And while I do not think that Liman is sufficiently channeling the formal austerity of Ozu or even intimately familiar with it, it is clear that he has, to a discernible degree, conjured its spirit in ways that conform to a modern narrative. The focus on dialogue from which the film's dramatic power pivots coheres seamlessly with this uncomplicated approach.
      To be sure, there are moments of aesthetic indulgence, divorcing the narrative from a total unobtrusive gaze. Liman and the cast recreate Tarantino's famous slow motion title sequence from Reservoir Dogs and a less ambitious, less vibrant duplication of Scorsese's Steadicam sequence from Goodfellas (Copacabana Club). These scenes emphasize the vitality of movement, marrying music with image in a kinetic procession. The expressive burst of energy is mesmerizing. 



      Career uncertainty is a consistent theme circling the lives of these swingers. Mike is initially subjected to the vapid pretensions of an aspiring performer who must perform in a land controlled by capricious interests. His character's arc is not only a referendum on the needless existential guilt that befalls all indecisive lovers, but a well-camouflaged assault on the callousness of a profession in which success slavishly relies on rejection. His friend, Rob, is also victimized by the carnival of conceit that Hollywood revels in. The fact that Favreau's script and Liman's direction satirizes this dysfunction so tactfully is a testament to their combined talent. 
      Beyond the occasional visual embellishment and the tonal consistency, the most spectacular element propelling Swingers fate into the immortalized wing of the comedic canon is the exceptional acting from everyone involved. Jon Favreau inhabits Mike with such unrelenting angst and pathos that you harbor simultaneous dislike and like for him in the same sentence. His whiny disposition does not endorse an empathetic plea until you realize how sincere and well-meaning his character's intentions are. Then the floodgate of emotion is unleashed and it is unstoppable. Vince Vaughn's natural charisma and steely good looks imbue his playboy-hipster-swinger character with surplus flair. Despite his obsession with the words "baby" and "money," Trent's aggressively jovial attitude is impossible to dismiss. Ron Livingston gives a restrained performance that foreshadows Office Space. And Heather Graham is a perfect embodiment of the very woman all romantically troubled men yearn for when pleasure is sought. You're a lucky man, Mike. What ex were you talking about, again? 
      Launching the careers of Doug Liman, Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, and Ron Livingston is the defining legacy of Swingers most worthy of culminating this nostalgic piece. The Bourne Identity benefits from Liman's tonal expertise. I can't imagine a world without Iron Man, Mr. Favreau. Old School, Wedding Crashers, and Dodgeball confirm the comedic importance of Vince Vaughn. Into the Wild is a damn fine movie, too. And work without Office Space is not work. Having observed and appreciated the careers of Swingers' integral players justifies its cultural importance in ways more exulting than mere words could furnish. To close the book on the '90s for my own edification and in honor of a recent re-watch, I had to emphasize the brilliance of that little film that could make you feel so money, baby. 

9 out of 10




1: Shout-out to Rent-A-Swag. My love for Parks and Recreation deserves mention as well. 

10 comments:

  1. Although this film had the unfortunate side effect of a few friends talking like Vince Vaughn the rest of the semester, there's no arguing the film is money, baby.

    And that's really all I have to say, so I'm outta here.

    This place is dead, anyway.

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    1. Yes, I know the feeling. I had a friend who had a knack for spoiling every activity by insistently referencing Trent's maxims. There were enough money and babies to overthrow the Hilton empire.

      Haha, I've always felt that my presence in the blogosphere mirrored a ghostly apparition. Glad I'm not the only one aware of the macabre roots.

      Thanks!

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  2. I really dug this movie and now you've made me want to dig it out and watch it again. By the way, Prof. Vanacore, you are a big inspiration for my A to Z theme this year. I've been really loving coming back here now that you doing more posts and my love of film has gotten a boost. So thank you. :) Oh, and my nephew Brandon needs help with some film books. Do you know any good basic ones he can use to get started? He's 13. Any guidance you could give would be very much appreciated.

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    1. My new motto: Motivating viewing habits one post at a time. Haha! I'm really grateful for your euphoric expressions of approval. Thank you dearly :)

      As for your nephew, I'd recommend that he seek out as much film criticism as possible; Manny Farber, James Agee, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, David Bordwell, Roger Ebert, J. Hoberman, and those he discovers along the way that incite his curiosity and inspire his critical pursuits.

      In terms of specific literature, I'd suggest For Keeps by Pauline Kael, The Great Movies by Ebert (no need to buy the book as his website lists all his "Great Movie" reviews, upwards of 400), The American Cinema by Andrew Sarris, Negative Space by Manny Farber, What Is Cinema? (Vol 1) by Andre Bazin, and the New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Bordwell. And Agee on Film is also a terrific option. These should occupy his mind for the foreseeable future.

      Thanks again :)

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    2. I really appreciate you taking the time to list these books for my nephew. You are the best!

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  3. Great review! Haven't seen this one in forever! So not money, baby!

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    1. Thanks, pal! You're still money in my book.

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  4. hmm. I've never seen this movie! looks fun though.
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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    1. This movie exudes fun like few others. I hope you check out soon.

      Thanks :)

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