I couldn’t much recall what happens in the 1996 film Swingers, which I chalked up to having last watched it more than a decade ago. Turns out my haziness on the plot is due to an artful lack of one. Or, I guess there is a plot — but it’s so low-stakes and naturalistic that you find yourself oddly relaxed. Revisiting the movie in 2021 comes with a certain relief: It is small, silly and as thoroughly lived-in as the In-n-Out T-shirt that Jon Favreau’s character wears to bed.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realize, I’d pinned Swingers as the kind of Dude Movie that cannot hold up. It was easy to anticipate the damning gender critiques on the one hand, and to imagine the “anti-woke” men who loved it in college, complaining that “you could never make it today.” Seeing the logo of Miramax, the film company co-founded by Harvey Weinstein, does nothing to put your mind at ease. It’s also true that in the 90 minutes to follow, we will almost never hear a woman speak unless a man is hitting on her — the movie doesn’t fail the Bechdel test so much as toss it out the window. Yet Swingers doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of sleaze or problematic stuff you might remember. It has, in fact, a boyish innocence.
And why not? Favreau wrote from his own experience as a struggling actor in Hollywood, stars as basically himself and pulled in his real-life friends for other roles, including Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston. They even used his actual car and shot in his apartment. We meet his protagonist, Mike, several months after a breakup precipitated by his cross-country move to L.A. to “make it” in comedy, which has yet to happen. Meanwhile, he can’t get over his ex-girlfriend, alternately moping at home waiting for her call or telling his buddies how much he misses her. The rest of the crew contrive to get him back out into the nightlife so he can finally move on.
Right from the opening scene, with Mike and Rob (Livingston) discussing heartbreak at a diner, we find a sensitive and wholesome dynamic between two dudes. Mike lays bare his fragile emotional state; Rob listens and gives wise counsel. At one point, Mike apologizes for being stuck on his former girlfriend, saying, “It’s just, you’ve been there, man, and your advice really helps […] you’re the only one I can talk to about her.”
That same night, Mike’s pal Trent (Vaughn) calls up and pressures him to go to Las Vegas on a whim. A motormouth and self-styled ladies’ man, Trent initially seems like the bad influence in contrast to the even-keeled Rob, and Mike is justifiably embarrassed by his brute flirtation as well as his self-aggrandizing. Rather quickly, however, Trent’s motives are revealed as brotherly: He interrupts his own hookup with a cocktail waitress to check on Mike and the woman’s friend, and when the adventure fizzles out, he’s not resentful. “I just wanted you to have a good time, that’s all,” he tells Mike.
Vince Vaughn, not Favreau, is who you think of when Swingers is mentioned. It’s the film that made him a star, and Trent is the prototype of almost every character he’s played since. Whether you vibe with the story is also the question of whether you could stand to hang out with this guy. Do you see him as an obnoxious, juvenile pickup artist, or do you laugh because “everybody has a friend like that,” someone who takes the joke too far and can’t help acting out?
No doubt a lot of teenagers took Trent for a slick operator, but now that I’m in my mid-30s, rewatching a buddy comedy about guys in their mid-20s, I have to admit my feelings have flipped. Favreau’s script and Doug Liman’s direction are clever enough to show us that he’s nowhere near the bigshot he pretends to be, nor much of a Casanova. He seems more interested in getting phone numbers than getting laid. Especially compared to the 2000s’ most popular depiction of male camaraderie and sexual abandon in Hollywood — the HBO series Entourage, which teetered on the brink of date-rape apologism — Trent and the rest of the crew in Swingers are admirably chivalrous. And whereas those wealthy dirtbags were usually bringing each other down, this is a group of authentic strivers maintained by positivity and loving support. Not once does Trent bust Mike’s balls over the ex, choosing instead to sing his praises. For all his moaning, insecurity and dud jokes, Mike is constantly told how “money” he is.
The flaws in these characters make them appealing foils, one all unfounded swagger and one afraid to emerge from his shell, and this produces the dramatic thread, along with a meaningful conclusion. Even if Trent’s worldview is that of a young buck too horny to focus on any specific woman, Swingers ends when Mike forgoes the seduction tactics in favor of sincerity. He meets Lorraine (Heather Graham) in a swing jazz nightclub; they jump the hurdle of initial awkwardness, find they have something in common and brave the dance floor with phenomenal success. Trent et al watch proudly, and drunkenly, from a distance. It’s fantasy, of course (placing yourself opposite Heather Graham is one perk of being screenwriter and principal actor), though it arrives on the knowledge that you don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, mimic your friends’ approach to living. You can be connected to your bros while being true to yourself.
It’s this sweetness that wins out in Swingers, overpowering a few spots of cringe (barely any offensive humor, but Trent consistently calling attractive women “beautiful babies” is hard to take), and the funniest twist of the film is an ode to fraternal harmony. When our boys encounter another crew outside a bar, machismo nearly results in serious violence, and in the aftermath, a nasty argument erupts between Mike and Sue, the hothead friend who escalated the incident. Trent stands up for Mike, but the group splits up in a fury. Later, when Mike is ready to forgive and forget, he finds that Sue is not only apologetic, he’s made peace with the toughs who had menaced them. The combined guy-group is chilling with beers, bullshitting and playing a hockey video game. What better distillation of the “dudes rock” ethos? I dare you not to be charmed.
For these reasons, I do believe Swingers has aged reasonably well — as a slice of life, as satire of L.A., as comfort food, as pastiche (it tells you it’s going to rip off famous shots from Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas before doing so), and above all, as an affirmation of solidarity. I won’t claim to have laughed a whole lot this last time around, but several scenes put a smile on my face, like when you go through old photos and reflect on what a dope you were back then. Had Favreau bowed to producers’ desire for something darker, or established actors, we wouldn’t have this genuine and heartfelt snapshot of low-status young men who must convince themselves, against a mountain of evidence, that they aren’t losers.
I say keep it in the canon.