That Moment In ‘Swingers’ (1996): The Phone Messages
Many films tap into current trends and forever lock themselves into an very specific time, which can often endear the movie as a kind of relic of the era. In the mid-nineteen nineties, Swing music and dance was sweeping pop culture and for a short period, everything in entertainment and marketing was making a grab for a piece of the profits. So it was for Swingers, a comedy-drama that launched a few careers and coined as many catchphrases. But it’s also so much more.
Jon Favreau is best known today for his work behind the camera, scoring acclaim Elf in 2003 and for the first Iron Man film in 2008. He recently earned praise again for his direction of Disney’s live-action and CGI adaptation of The Jungle Book. But he got his start as an actor and writer and his first screenplay to be made into a movie was Swingers, a comedy-drama about a comedian named Mike (Favreau) who leaves the East for the West, leaving behind a woman who broke his heart. In L.A., he spends time with his new best friend Trent (Vince Vaughn), who is also a struggling actor, and the two hang with fellow actors and the like, trying to break into the business. Trent is a lean, hyper-positive rock-star-type who has it easy with the ladies and tries to pull the ever more depressing Mike out of his slump. It ain’t easy, even though “he’s money.”
Directed by Doug Liman, in only his second feature, Swingers is a heavily-styled film that became a major hit that made stars out of the two leads, with Vaughn especially getting critical attention after director Steven Spielberg caught a glimpse while screening the movie in order to allow a few bars of the Jaws theme into the Swingers soundtrack. He liked what he saw in Vaughn so much, he cast him in the sequel to Jurassic Park.
Swingers is a funny, heartfelt little film that works because the characters are sincere. While they talk big and walk tall, there is a humanity to their stories, a depth that allows the audience to appreciate their ups and downs and share in their experiences without feeling manipulated by contrivance. Favreau and Vaughn especially are perfectly matched and the dichotomous relationship they share makes for one of the better bromances in film. And it’s this dynamism that gives the film its real heart, making a number of great cinematic moments that deserve a closer look, But let’s instead discuss a more isolated moment, one where Mike battles demons alone.
The Phone Messages
First, some necessary set up. To start, this is a time when young men called women ‘babies’ but interestingly enough, also their friends. Being cool and looking cooler is, as always, the thing, and Trent (Vaughn) has both. Tall, lean, handsome and as confident as a freight train, he barrels through life with nothing getting him down. The nightlife is where it’s at if you’re gonna make it in this town and Trent knows where all the good ones are. He’s all about the party life and getting digits from the babies.
His new best pal Mike (Favreau) though is not much fun. Mike is still reeling from his breakup from a six year relationship and can’t seem to rise up out of his funk. To help him get back on this feet, Trent invites Mike on an impromptu trip to Las Vegas and picks him up in a cherry red convertible. Mike is actually rather excited by the idea of having some fun and once they dress the part, they drive the long ride into the desert. Hundreds of miles later, they arrive and since neither have any real money and don’t really know how to gamble (you alway double down on a eleven), they crash and burn early, but Trent’s more about the girls than the money and his only plan, right from the start, is to get sex.
They eventually meet two women at the casino who are interested in partying. Things go well at first, but it’s not long before Mike can’t resist talking about his ex-girlfriend and this only endears him to his date, and his date’s friend, wrecking any hope for Trent to get some action. Them’s the breaks.
But Trent’s not a spiteful guy and the reason we like him so much is that he does understand and recognizes the hurt his friend is in. He’s player but he’s not selfish. After the night passes with Mike spilling his heart out to the girls, Trent and Mike head back. Along the way, Trent pulls over to relieve himself and after getting back in the car, decides it’s time for a chat.
Mike understands he blew it for his friend but suggest the girl he was with didn’t like him anyway, whereas Trent is quick to say that he’s wrong. He tells Mike that he’s “money,” an expression that means anything good or of the highest quality. He says that both girls liked him but the issue wasn’t the girls who didn’t want to party, it was Mike. He took himself out of the game by getting emotional over his ex. That’s the kind of thing that send girls over to the friendship zone. He goes on to tell Mike that he’s got to stop hiding himself in his apartment and move on. He’s better off without her. Build a new life. Mike agrees and promises to make a change.
Back in L.A., the two meet some friends at a club to meet some women and after some encouragement, Mike manages to talk to a girl and even get her number. Things look up, but as the evening closes, an altercation outside leaves things uncomfortable among some of the friends and feeling run down by it, Mike heads home and decides to call the girl, even though Trent has firmly told him to wait the time-honored minimum two days (but preferably six) before calling.
He gets the answering machine and attempts to leave his number but it cuts him off as he says the last digit. He calls back, and instead of just saying the number, prattles on a bit and again, doesn’t get it right. He calls back a third time, this time just giving her the number but feels inclined to go on, telling her they should just hang out and see where things go with no expectations. It’s getting desperate.
He manages to put the phone down and walk away, but comes right back and dials again, now trying to explain himself, telling her machine that he just got out of a six-year relationship and that’s the reason he’s acting so weird. It’s not her. It’s him. He apologizes and hangs up.
But he’s not done. He calls her right back and on the machine confesses that he thinks she’s great but it’s just not working out and that maybe they should take some time off from each other. He starts to say that it’s only been six months since they broke up, but then Nikki gets on the line, having been listening the entire time. Her voice surprises Mike and he switches gears, happy to hear her. But not for long. She gives him one sentence: “Don’t ever call me again.”
The moment is a powerfully effective demonstration of the complex emotional state Mike is in and without exposition, we see his fragility. Meeting Nikki accomplishes much, in that it got him out and proved he could meet and interest a woman. But that tender first step frightened him, even though it’s what he really wants. In the few minutes it took for him to give his number and repeat it back, it opened his eyes to the realization that it would mean actually spending time with a different girl. This notion triggers collapse and as the confidence crumbles, the more pathetic his messages become to the point where he breaks up with the girl having not had a single date.
But it’s the ending of this moment that impacts the most. As she hangs up and leaves him holding dead air, Mike, still holding the phone to his ear, looks directly at the camera. It’s a sudden and sharply unexpected break of the the fourth wall. But what does it mean?
It’s easy to judge, right? That’s what we’ve been doing since the moment started. Here’s poor, pathetic Mike offering up one of the more squirm-inducing moments of awkwardness ever put on film. And we laugh as we are meant to. It’s a comedy after all and everything about the scene is framed and timed and written to be so. But then the look. He stops us, seemingly aware we are watching and dares us to think about what we just saw and to consider our own foolishness in the wake of heartbreak. He challenges us to find fault but also to look deeply at who he has become. Do we recognize ourselves? This is the low point. This is the moment when Mike breaks, the weight and and burden of failure and the inescapable pain of loneliness and self-blame have ruined him. He asks for us to be a witness to this end, to see him at the lowest and it’s a signal to the audience. Pay attention, Mike is saying. Understand now what motivates him later.
Swingers is a remarkably insightful comedy that finds rich emotional payoff in the best ways possible, through character growth rather than plot convenience. Favreau’s script and Liman’s direction create a world that is bursting with style and substance, brought to life with two great performances. Wildly upbeat and popping with flash and wicked dialog, at its best, it is stripped down to a single man’s worst possible moment in a bare room with nearly no light as he reveals the true pain festering inside him.
Vince Vaughn, Heather Graham, Jon Favreau, Ron Livingston