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I Liked This In College: Swingers

In I Liked This In College, Jeff rewatches a movie that he once adored to see how it holds up now that he’s a pretentious blogger.

What happened to this guy?

Why I Liked Swingers: Over the last week, bombarded as I’ve been with the marketing campaign for The Dilemma (the new Ron Howard comedy about how gay electric cars are), I’ve been repeatedly forced to consider the sad fate of Vince Vaughn. There he is, motor-mouth charm muffled by puffy jowls-in-training, eyes that once sparkled with infinite potential now going dim, the light drained further with each Kevin James punch line, with each joke about troubled urination. How did the wiry ladies man of Swingers come to such a gruesome end?

While this column is ostensibly about Swingers, I suppose it could just as easily be titled I Liked This In College: Vince Vaughn. As a late 90s cult phenomenon, Swingers served as a launching pad for a number of careers including those of Doug Liman, Jon Favreau, and Ron Livingston. While those guys all undoubtedly benefited from the success of Swingers, none of them rode the film to the heights that Vaughn has. It isn’t just that Vaughn steals his every scene in Swingers, or that his performance is the most memorable, it’s that he’s spent the rest of his career reprising the role of Trent Walker.

Vaughn has made attempts to vary the sort of characters he plays and the kind of movies he’s in. There are even films like Return to Paradise and The Prime Gig that succeed without relying too heavily on Vaughn’s rapid-fire banter. There are cult favorites like Clay Pigeons and Made that take Vaughn’s usually lovable qualities to frightening and dangerous extremes. And then, well, there are the rest of Vaughn’s films. The Trent Derivatives. Some of them, like Old School and Wedding Crashers, are solid comedies. I’d even argue that Wedding Crashers is an effective last act for the Trent archetype, where he finally realizes the hollowness of years of womanizing and settles down with the freakiest baby he can find. Unfortunately, most of Vaughn’s films, especially over the last 5 years, and likely reaching a nadir with the horrid looking Dilemma, have been flaccid comedies, reducing the once legendary Trent into a pudgy douche, stammering lines and decidedly phoning it in.

They're gonna give daddy The Rainman suite.

At one point, I’d have considered Swingers amongst my 5 desert island films. During college, my Swingers DVD burned out the laser on my Playstation 2. As if that wasn’t enough, the film saw frequent rotation on the university “movie channel” (essentially a bootleg state university HBO that would run one movie in a 24 hour loop for a week at a time). At a cold upstate university where the beautiful babies hid themselves beneath puffy coats and those heinous Long Island sweatpants with the rolled down waistbands, we adopted the hipster vernacular of Swingers’ too cool California heroes. A sampling:

Babies. Money. Digits. Pulling a Fredo. Big fangs and teeth. Vegas, baby. What’s up now, hip hop? Is he clean? Tell him to take his shoes off. I don’t want you to be the guy in the PG-13 movie, I want you to be the guy in the R-rated movie. The big winner. The thing with the thing. Ma’am, where do the high school girls hang around in this town? I wouldn’t eat here anyway.

Those are all Trent-isms, and we wore them out. I’m not sure when or why I exited Swingers from my vocabulary. As Swingers reached a wider and wider audience, as the dudes capable of quoting it increased exponentially, it didn’t seem so cool. There were too many guys behind the guy behind the guy. Now, it seems like trotting out “baby” and “money” is the province of the aging tool – guys with a little too much pride in their Dolce Gabana belt buckles behind guys that insist on exploding their fist pounds.

Guys that still like Vince Vaughn movies.

And so, the question becomes: how has Swingers withstood the test of time? As badly as its breakout star? How dated is its world without Facebook and cell phones, and does it have anything to offer fifteen years after its release? Is it still funny? Or, has this progenitor of the bro comedy become completely irrelevant? Like Vaughn, could Swingers ever be cool again?

Like Jeremy Roenick, these guys have heart.

What I Think After The Rewatch: I learned a lot from this viewing of Swingers. First and foremost, it was like a refresher course in how to talk to women (I’ve been calling girls way too soon!). More importantly, I was reminded that it’s unfair to turn cold on a cult film because it starts to develop a following and, in the case of Swingers, it is a real injustice to hold it accountable for the kind of fans it creates (especially as I’m one of them). We might have put Trent on a towering pedestal of male coolness, but Liman and Favreau never did.

I’ll get back to Vaughn/Trent, but first I want to discuss Swingers as a time capsule. Obviously, it is dated. If the presence of the inexplicable late 90s swing music fad doesn’t give that away, then certainly the prevalence of answering machine humor will. Perhaps the film’s most famous scene, where Favreau’s Mike leaves a series of messages on a young lady’s answering machine, each more desperate than the last, might not ring true with viewers who never suffered through the hard-wired pre-millennium dark ages.

Then again, isn’t there probably a social networking equivalent to what Mike does? Even if the whole process of getting a girl’s number on a cocktail napkin and making an uncertain call to her home phone has gone the way of courting on horseback, the scene, and Favreau’s cringe inducing performance, still manages to mine something universal. It’s that uncertain feeling of dealing with the opposite sex – we’ve all been there, we’ve all humiliated ourselves in similar fashion. Even filled as it is with answering machines, Clubs, and wallet-chains, Swingers is still fundamentally genuine and relatable, and thus timeless. The credit needs to be spread around –Liman’s understated directing, Favreau’s smart but not showy script, the earnest performances from the cast – all these combine to make Swingers feel real and meaningful.

I think we tend to remember the broader comedy of Swingers (specifically, every time Trent opens his mouth) more than we do how much heart the movie has. We remember the smarmy, often callous, and infinitely appealing way that Trent and Sue approach women. We might even emulate that, all while forgetting the important counterpoint provided by Mike and Rob. As much as it might be remembered as a movie about picking up chicks, Swingers is much more about twenty-something uncertainty. When a depressed Mike plummets to his absolute lowest, Rob gives him a pep talk that both neatly lays out the themes of Swingers and demonstrates that beneath its womanizing exterior, the film has a heart of gold.

Mike is in the midst of a quarter-life crisis (before that was even a term). He’s not the only one. Although they’re given less screen time, all of our boys are facing existential dilemmas. Rob is struggling with his lack of a career, Sue is living in a gangster fantasy-world, and Trent is not nearly as together as he’d like his friends to believe. These are more than just archetypes – Sue is not just the badass, Trent is not just the lady’s man – these are nuanced characters. It’s because the characters feel so much like real people that Swingers is able to rise above its status as an early bro comedy and achieve the level of classic.

And that brings me back to Vaughn. To say he’s spent his entire career reprising the role of Trent is unfair to Swingers and to Vaughn. Sure, the Trent of Swingers is a silver-tongued loudmouth, but he’s tempered by uncertainty, goofy affectations, and a palpable need to make people like him. Vaughn doesn’t just spit lines here, he inhabits a character. All the Trent Derivatives that he’s played since have been stripped down to their broad comedy bones, the layers of actual humanity carved off. It’s no wonder that Vaughn seems to have been phoning it in for so long considering he’s been given so little to work with. I can’t blame Vaughn for stoically cashing checks for horrible films. He deserves some compensation for looking on as, over the years, his most iconic character has been routinely appropriated and dumbed down for the sake of lesser comedies. It’s sort of like Rob auditioning for Goofy at Disney Land: at least it’s work.

Do I Still Like It? Of course. Swingers is excellent. It’s wonderfully shot and acted. It’s funny and genuine. After not having revisited it for so long, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to keep hanging out with Mike, Trent, and the guys. I also still like Vince Vaughn, even if Hollywood has spent the last fifteen years soldering over the chinks in his armor that once made Vaughn more interesting than just a typecast loudmouth.

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