Planet of the apes

Swingers chronicles the lives of a posse of sleazy blowhards

Film critics are put in a difficult position when they see a movie that's well-made but features characters so unbelievably odious you wouldn't want to spend two minutes with them in real life. Of course, directors including Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese have built legendary careers out of one scumbag saga after another. But in most of the movies by those filmmakers, the anti-heroes and -heroines were deployed to make a specific point about some grand theme like honor, greed, or ambition. How do you judge a confidently executed little movie when the shallowness and cruelty of its characters seems to delight the filmmaker?

This was the reaction I had to Swingers, the new indie sensation from Miramax. On the one hand, director Doug Liman and writer and star Jon Favreau prove to be startlingly focused and self-assured in their tale of best buddies who haunt the cocktail lounge scene in Los Angeles. On the other hand, director Liman and his writer-star Favreau are so enchanted with their own technical prowess, they deny the characters a recognizable, sympathetic core. Swingers is a surefooted little comedy, but it's also an incredibly smug one. Viewers who have trouble identifying with the film's small-minded party animals will yearn for someone--perhaps the director, maybe one of the cast members--to show them why they should care about these people. It never happens.

Swingers succeeds best at conjuring an urgent atmosphere. The club scenes were shot at real Los Angeles hotspots on weekend nights. Director Doug Liman, also the film's cinematographer, told club managers and extras he was shooting a documentary, not a feature. This little white lie kept most people who appeared in the background from caring enough to disrupt the production by making faces at the camera.

As a result, the story of a New York standup comic transplanted to Los Angeles and his nightlife misadventures with a Neanderthal best friend buzzes with authenticity. Our hero, Mike (Jon Favreau), can't quite forget the girlfriend he left behind, although his handsome, fast-talking buddy, Trent (Vince Vaughan), does his best to transform the reluctant Mike into a "swinger"--a selfish lady killer, a debonair doubletalker. Even Mike, who certainly hates women less than Trent does, left me feeling nauseous, because his romantic desperation is portrayed here without a shred of insight. There's an extended sequence in which he records one pitiful message after another on the answering machine of a woman whose phone number he has obtained at a bar. The fact that he has managed to score these "digits" represents a major coup in the film's psychology; his flubbing of the opportunity might offer a poignant comic moment in any film except Swingers, where even this relatively sympathetic male can't quite overcome the cloying mantra that is hard-sold by his fellow roosters. Mike seems like a nice guy not because he possesses any innately decent qualities, but because he's a failure when it comes to swimming with the sharks.

And as far as sharks are concerned, I'm prepared to give Vince Vaughan the award for most convincing predator not achieved through special effects. Vaughan provides the film's twisted heart and soul as the bar fly who'll cheerfully backstab any friend (or humiliate any stranger) if they get in the way of his insatiable hunt for women. His memorable performance is one of those strange celluloid concoctions that intrigues and repels at the same time, and it accounts for my generally conflicted feelings about the film as a whole. He conjures an impressive character, but never draws it to a logical narrative conclusion. Vaughan inflicts wounds in a meanspirited vacuum; he shifts too fast from masterminding to flailing.

Swingers turns even clumsier when it makes self-conscious references to hip cinema. Liman alludes to both Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas with distracting sequences that only remind viewers how little intelligence his own film contains. Ultimately, the director reveals himself to be so far in cahoots with his lead characters that he can only record their hijinks, not make sense of them. He and writer-actor Jon Favreau are enchanted by their ability to sweet-talk viewers with inevitable pop culture references and sly camera techniques, but they never bother to justify their efforts. It's like any clever opening line you'd hear at a singles bar; you're flattered by the chutzpa, but the glaring lack of sincerity turns you off.

Swingers. Miramax. Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughan, Ron Livingston. Written by Jon Favreau. Directed by Douglas Liman. Now playing.

 
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