Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

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Swingers is about a lot of things- friendship, getting laid, making it in Hollywood. It’s not terribly difficult to see stars Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn as thinly veiled versions of themselves; they portray struggling young men in Los Angeles, migrating from party to party and struggling to hide the shame of callbacks and empty answering machines. On another level, it’s also a love letter to Hollywood itself, that tempting bitch- the sheer number of film references is mind-boggling, ranging from scenes in direct homage to Tarantino and Scorsese (ah, homage, the gentleman’s imitation) to slightly more subtle nods to George Lucas and Rain Man. But more than anything, Swingers is about being young, single and slightly adrift, one’s whole life a series of transient, drunken evenings.

But that makes it sound depressing, while Swingers is actually a hilarious film, albeit one that mines its laughter from awkward horror. I laughed out loud as many times as I shouted “Oh dear God” at some idiocy perpetrated by either of the duo. Whether it’s Trent flirting with a girl by literally acting like an infant or Mike wondering whether being turned on by a Judy Garland costume shows homoerotic tendencies, I was laughing nearly the entire film- if I wasn’t balling my fists in sympathetic horror. Truth be told, I tried watching it when I was in my late teens and was completely unimpressed- I couldn’t make it past an early scene of Favreau (as comedian Mike) and Vaughn (as actor Trent) making fools of themselves in a grimy Las Vegas casino. I simply didn’t find it funny and couldn’t understand what was so endearing about these buffoons. A decade later and my twenties going the way of the dinosaur, I can view them in a more sympathetic light. They’re not buffoons (well, not all the time), they’re just two guys hoping to have a good time, or at least to feel good about themselves. Surprisingly, when life’s a series of parties, it can be difficult.

At the very least, Swingers appeals most to a viewer who can see themselves in Mike’s awkwardness (his inability to actually be humorous on purpose is a running joke) or Trent’s charismatic oafishness. It’s not surprising that the film launched successful careers for both- as Mike, Favreau is both infuriating and heartbreaking, if a little too indebted to Woody Allen’s nebbish mannerisms, while Vaughn’s Trent basically set the mold for the fast talking, hyper-confident character he seems most comfortable in. The film’s plot itself is minimal; it’s basically episodic with Mike and Trent visiting parties, talking film with friends and trying to get phone numbers from girls. Meanwhile, Mike agonizes over his ex with a fellow East Coast transplant, ably played by Ron Livingston of Office Space fame. While episodic films often strike me as lazy writing, the inability to tie a coherent narrative together, this time it made sense; their lives are a series of the same thing again and again, so why not?

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The gender politics may seem a little cringeworthy (in one particularly nasty scene, Trent rips up a girl’s number even while he walks away from her), the boys constantly declaring that a particular situation with a girl is “on.” But on the other hand, it’s a movie about twenty-something men by twenty-something men, and that’s never particularly been a formula for sensitivity. In fact, a lot of things about Swingers seem incredibly dated; the ’90s “swing revival” it helped usher in died a deservedly quiet death, and to see the sheer number of wallet chains, faux-’50s haircuts and bowling shirts is a curiosity at best. A cameo by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy doesn’t help, although the dance scene they score for Mike and eventual love interest Lorraine (Heather Graham, almost ready to breakthrough as Roller Girl) is curiously heartfelt.

Perhaps the dated nature of Swingers actually helps it in the long run; the period of life that Mike and Trent and all their friends experience is a temporary one, that they would no doubt look back upon with nostalgia and a certain amount of self-disgust. They certainly can’t live a party for their entire life, but they’ll look upon it with regret and fondness later. It rather fits that Swingers can only be seen as a marker of a certain time and place, a brief and somewhat embarrassing one, because we all look at our life that way sometimes.

by Nathan Kamal
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