In the present day we are all inundated with media (don’t worry, this isn’t going to be like yesterdays’ blog-o-tribe). Given that there is such a bombardment of culture and entertainment, it’s especially fascinating to me when one cultural meme or artifact stands the test of time and resonates across geographical boundaries. One film that I believe to have insinuated itself in the consciousness and awareness of people (more specifically men ages 25-35) is the movie Swingers starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. There are many reasons for its popularity. It is funny. The schlumpy hero gets the girl. Vince Vaughn is at his most charismatic (to the point where he made an entire career out of playing variations on the Trent character). But I believe the dominant factor in the continued enjoyment of Swingers is that it operates as a modern day fairy tale, a fairy tale that appeals to the sensibilities of grown men.
Firstly, Swingers operates inside a magical world. That tone is set early on when Mikey (Favreau) returns home and listens to his messages, which include an unexplained pep talk from his answering machine, which assures him: “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” This type of magical realism never repeats itself quite so strongly at any other point in the film, but it establishes that sometimes strange and wonderful things happen without any reason or explanation. The inciting event of the film takes Trent and Mikey to Vegas, a place that seems like a wonderland (replete with a yellow brick road) in comparison to Mikey’s drab LA apartment. When Mikey and Lorraine (Heather Graham) wind up together at the end of the movie, it results from an almost magical serendipity. There is no John Cusak boombox Say Anything moment. Mikey never wins Lorraine over. It just happens because it is fated to happen.
Another feature of fairy tale logic is the vagueness of time and place that permeates Swingers. Though the movie passes through many Los Angeles landmarks, especially bars, there is a sense of “once upon a time and far away” (Or as the rapper Slick Rick would put it “once upon a time, not long ago, when people wore pajamas and lived life slow.”). The backdrop is clearly Los Angeles, but the time is fuzzier. Characters speak and dress in a manner that is not linked to any specific time. Trent especially speaks in a funky retro idiolect (“You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”). But the presence of the video game NHL ’94 leads us to believe that Swingers takes place in the modern era. Therefore, its messages and lessons easily transfer to any era. Through its lack of specific time, its ideas become timeless.
In many fairy tales, Kings and Queens are presented as emblems of royalty, but they are never seen legislating. They wield status and power without the actuality of royalty coming into play. This trope, too, appears consistently throughout Swingers. Mikey, Trent, Rob, Sue, and their other acquaintances occupy sort of nebulous positions in show business. They reportedly go out on auditions, and Mikey even plays a bus driver in a movie, but the viewer never experiences any of this work. Instead, we see the men play video games and golf, attend parties and bar hop. The evocation of “show business” gives them a locus in society, but it does not impact the flow of the story.
The story itself moves with a maximum of what Italian writer Italo Calvino calls “quickness,” another fairy tale staple. The story moves from beginning to end in under two hours, and motifs never get the chance to drag (with the exception of the excruciating and interminable answering machine scene, which is enough to make any grown man squirm). Any time a scene begins to drag, the phrase “this place is dead anyway” is uttered as if a magical spell, and the location shifts.
Two other fairy tale features that figure prominently in Swingers’s conclusion are the ideas of transformation and the happy ending. When Mikey meets Lorraine, they have a wild evening of dancing while the others watch and muse “It’s so on.” Mikey makes a remark about having taken dance lessons with his ex-girlfriend, but since it has not come up in the movie it is almost like a magical transformation. Then, when Mikey hangs up on Michelle (his ex) to talk on the phone with Lorraine, the spell of his misery has been broken. He transforms from mopey Mikey (who has “the claws and the teeth” but still can’t “kill the bunny”) to his ideal form (“so money”). The happy ending comes not as a result of his actively learning a lesson, but his consistent quest to weather the trials and tribulations of life leading to a quick and mystical transformation by an outside agent (Lorraine). By the movie’s end, he is, as Trent puts it “Growns up, and you’re growns up, and you’re growns up!”
Swingers gives adult men the hope of romantic fulfillment without the sentimentality and struggle of the traditional “chick flick.” The journey here is not one of making a relationship work, but the more traditinoally masculine idea of seeking out one’s destiny in the world and attracting love to one’s self rather than actively working within the context of an existing or potential romance. Mikey is the everyman, and his fairy tale romance represents the possibility for every man to fulfill his romantic potential simply through being and doing things that are essentially natural. Swingers tells us that we are all “so money, and we don’t even know it.” And that is its appeal.
Also, getting to make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed. That too.