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"Swingers" And Its Role in the 1990s Swing Revival

Updated on June 30, 2011

It's odd how the 1980s was such a defining decade in terms of pop culture that it continued to be referenced and satirized for the past 20 years. New wave music, Valley-Girl talk, leg warmers, ALF... they all seem to be present one way or another when a medium looks back at that decade for comedic effect. Maybe because the 80s were so big, the 90s couldn't measure up. Grunge music, Beverly Hills 90210, O.J. Simpson jokes. Looking back, it's hard to wrap up the entire 90s decade into a single stream. However, a particular short-lived pop culture moment in the 90s was the swing revival. The film with a young cast that inspired and exemplified that lifestyle was 1996's "Swingers."
Written and starring John Favreau and directed by Doug Limon (who would later go on to direct Hollywood blockbusters "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "The Bourne Identity"), the film was a snapshot of a group of young struggling actors in Hollywood who spend their nights as "swingers," picking up women at bars and clubs. Favreau stars as Mike, a comedian who recently moved to L.A. from New York after the break up from his long-term girlfriend. Vince Vaughn's breakout role is Mike's best friend Trent, the smooth-talking (and sometimes obnoxious) ladies' man also trying to make it in Hollywood. Rounding out the cast is Rob (Ron Livingston), Mike's friend from back home who recently moved to L.A. but reduced to playing Goofy at Disneyland to pay the rent. Sue (Patrick Van Horn) play's Trent's wing man at the club scenes.

With no real plot, the film chronicles a short period as these characters hang out during the day, attempt to hook up at night, and try to make it in Hollywood. In a sense, they are outsiders in the L.A. party scene. They're wolves in sheep's' clothing in a culture that values money, excess, and success. At one particular party in the Hollywood Hills, Mike attempts to start a conversation with another woman. Her shallow-minded first question is "What do you drive?" When she is not impressed by the fact that Mike drives a Cavalier (even though its red!), she ignores him and continues with the conversation with her friend. This is another defeat for Mike who is having a difficult time getting over his old girlfriend. This element is the one plot point that exists through the entire film. Mike's low point comes after he finally charms a girl at a bar to get her number. Upon returning home that night at 2 a.m., Mike's excitement overcomes him and begins calling her (which broke the cardinal rule of waiting a day to call a girl). He gets the answering machine and expresses his enthusiasm in getting to know her. Yet, the machine cuts him off mid-sentence. Frustrated, a series of messages follows explaining his rough time coping with the end of his last relationship. On about the sixth message left, she picks up and quickly tells him to never call her again. This is the moment where Mike hits rock bottom.
Depressed, Mike cuts off contact with his friends for two days. Wallowing on the floor, unkempt, looking through old photographs of him and his ex, Mike feels helpless when it comes to finding love. Rob stops by and sympathizes with him about how he's feeling. Rob eventually motivates him to come out that night with the guys. That night, he meets Lorraine (Heather Graham), a pretty girl who instantly hits it off with Mike. They are able to connect soon after Mike learns that she recently moved to L.A. from Wisconsin after the ending of a relationship. She asks him to dance and Mike seals the deal when they swing dance to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (a skill he picked up when he took dance classes with his ex).

The following morning, Mike doesn't want to make the same mistake so he chooses the proper day to call Lorraine back. He then receives a call from his ex, hoping to re-connect. When Lorraine calls on the other line, Mike automatically tells his ex that he'll call her back as he would rather talk to Lorraine.
What made the film and indie success was that it was able to exemplify the L.A. bar scene and made swing music appealing again. Also, the film follows in the footsteps of Kevin Smith's "Clerks," whereby a screenwriter can construct a scene based solely on characters having a conversation about nothing. In a particular scene where the guys are hanging out before heading to a party, they discuss the "money-shot" scenes in "Goodfellas" (the steady-shot scene at the Copacabana) and "Reservoir Dogs" (walking in slow motion over the opening credits). As they leave for the party, the movie goes meta by imitating that scene from "Reservoir Dogs" as they walk to get in their cars.
The other highlight of this film was influential in the aforementioned swing revival. The film featured the band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in the above clip. The soundtrack features classic hits from Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and contemporary swing revival band Royal Crown Revue. The brass section, the dancing, and the clothes is what defined this cultural trend. Public interest peaked and record labels began marketing bands such as the Brian Setzer Orchestra and the ska-influenced Mighty Mighty Bosstones. These bands had hit records at the time but couldn't sustain that success in the ever-changing music business.

"Swingers" remains to be an enjoyable film and a smart comedy, but it may be lost on younger generations. Keep in mind, this represented a time right before the Internet became a sensation. When meeting women, you asked for their phone numbers while nowadays you friend-request them on Facebook. The dialogue remains smart and the classic and contemporary music fits well throughout. For anyone trying to make it in Hollywood as an actor or screenwriter, Jon Favreau is a benchmark for how to make an appealing film while basically writing parts for your friends and producing on limited budget.

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