In Swingers, the twentysomething guys sit around talking about women — or, more precisely, “babies” — and comparing notes on how to land them. Swingers, of course, is the latest illegitimate child of Diner, and bits of it are genuinely sharp and funny. But the movie is also the very latest in ironic, post-everything comedy, with hip references and an obscure lingo — like Trainspotting for lounge lizards. And do we need another affectionate look at hapless Gen-X guys?
Directed by Doug Liman and written by one of its stars, Jon Favreau, Swingers is a clearly autobiographical L.A. story. The guys are all aspiring actors who grumble about the demeaning stuff they audition for; one character is up for the role of Goofy, but loses it to someone with “more theme-park experience.” We’ve seen the type in many independent movies lately, from Swimming with Sharks to Leaving Las Vegas. But this isn’t a movie to wallow in the despair of being a little fish in L.A.’s big pond.
The two main characters, struggling stand-up comic Mike (Favreau) and retro-slick actor Trent (Vince Vaughn), will remind some of Jules Feiffer’s clueless guys in his “Bernard and Huey” strips and his script for Carnal Knowledge. Those guys were baffled by the emerging feminism of the ’60s. Mike and Trent, by contrast, are fin-de-siecle single guys. Decades of pop culture have given them an ironic awareness of every move they try on women. They’re watching themselves imitate the icons they grew up on: Travolta, the Fonz, even Woody Allen.
Some of this is engaging, and the leads do carry you along. Favreau is likably flustered and unsure (despite a troubling resemblance to Steve Guttenberg); Mike, who still carries a torch for the woman he left in New York, tells himself that nice guys finish last — that women don’t respect men who respect them. Trent, played to suave near-perfection by Vaughn, agrees that nice guys finish last, so he turns himself into his idea of a narcissistic playboy. Sex is less important to him than getting a woman’s phone number — he digs the theater of the singles bar, the process, the performance.
Liman and Favreau concoct a consciously derivative world for these guys, and though it’s appropriate to the movie, I got tired of it after a while. It’s too soon for homages to Reservoir Dogs (especially when the take-off is accompanied by talk about Tarantino), and Liman stumbles when he mimics the Copacabana tracking shot from GoodFellas; he lacks Scorsese’s gliding technique and seemingly spontaneous choreography. The scene is there so you can recognize it and feel hip.
Swingers is very of-the-moment. It cashes in on the recent lounge revival and exploits male confusion in an era when sensitive guys are on the way out. (In these films, men are doomed never to know what women want.) It quotes from movies that Gen-X guys know by heart. It has its moments (the punchline of the movie is great), but the moments don’t add up to a vision or even a quotable cult comedy. The guys in Swingers are struggling actors in their careers and in their lives, too. They’re the stars of their own self-absorbed Gen-X mind-movies.