What most defines a great movie as it etches its place into history are its words, not its images.
It's the unfair advantage dialogue has over visuals when it comes to getting the word out about a picture. The heartbreaking, rib-rattling relationship comedy "Swingers" (1996), has an imposing advantage over most other recent films vying for recognition as classics.
Like "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Jaws," "Swingers" is blessed with a brilliantly quotable screenplay, one of the most electric and insightful ever written. No film gives a better insight into the mind of the single male as he braves the rocky waters of the dating world.
Written by its star, Jon Favreau, "Swingers" is based on his own struggles as a stand-up comedian who uprooted from his comfortable Queens, N.Y., neighborhood to move to Los Angeles. There, love and success don't come as easily as advertised.
Space doesn't allow a recap of every iconic line from "Swingers," but try a sample platter:
● "You're so money and you don't even know it."
● "I want you to remember this face. He's the guy behind the guy behind the guy."
● "Who's the big winner tonight at the casino? Huh? Mike, that's who. Mikey's the big winner. Mikey wins!"
● "You take yourself out of the game. You start talking about puppy dogs and ice cream, and, of course, it's going to end up on the friendship tip."
● (After scoring a goal in a hockey video game.) "It's not so much me as it is Roenick. He's good."
● "Our little Mikey is all growns up. He's growns up and he's growns up and he's growns up."
I could go on for an hour, and often have, in bull sessions with friends, flinging quotes from the film back and forth, which I'm sure have been, and continue to be, replicated in thousands of giddy groups of pals in love with the film.
"Swingers," though, is much more than a compilation of snappy one-liners. It's a heartfelt story of love among friends, the pain of lost romance and the hapless urge that makes a broken heart long to recover something, anything that could pass for romance.
The characters struggle through their existences by playing video hockey, cruising parties and dreaming of the big showbiz break.
It must have been cathartic for Favreau to hoist his intensely personal pain onto the page, and it's a happy irony that a tale of struggle of the underworked actor led to wild success. Before "Swingers," Favreau was best known for a small part as Sean Astin's chubby friend in "Rudy."
The success of "Swingers" turned Favreau into a nice-guy-makes-good icon, which he parlayed into a directing career.
It also propelled his friend and co-star, Vince Vaughn, into a regular on the big-budget comedy circuit. Vaughn established his screen persona in "Swingers" as Frank Sinatra-emulating Trent, the wise-ass, know-it-all chauvinist who understands so much about how to pick up women, he could write a book. And he did, sorta.
"Swingers: The Swingers Rules and a Screenplay" details Trent's banal, yet oddly effective rules of dating and relationship. Among the foremost: "Wait two days to call, otherwise you might scare off a beautiful baby."
Trent is the swingingest of singles in a Los Angeles completely enthralled by the mid-1990s swing-music fad. He gets so many phone numbers, sometimes he'll tear one up right after he gets it, just to show his pals he doesn't need every set of digits he gets.
Under Trent's wing is Favreau's Mikey, who's still stung from the breakup of his girlfriend of six years, even though they've been apart for six months. Mikey is a slave to his answering machine, desperately hoping his ex will call him back.
Trent and Mikey's fellow Queens transplant, Rob (Ron Livingston), do their best to console and rehabilitate Mikey in road trips and late-night heart-to-hearts at dilapidated cafes. So complete is Mikey's obsession with keeping tabs on the answering machine, though, that one night in Las Vegas, Mikey breaks up one of Trent's potential sexual conquests by barging in and demanding to use the phone.
Trent and Mikey's foray into Sin City makes for the centerpiece of the film, in which the men wear suits into a run-down casino, hoping to be treated as big shots. Mikey, gambling with his rent money, loses $200 on one hand of blackjack - "always double-down on 11, baby," Trent insists - and Trent works his mojo on a cocktail waitress, dazzling Mikey with his prowess.
"That's the Jedi Mind (trick)," Mikey says in awe, and Trent eats up every bit of the reverence.
Throughout the film, Mikey tries clumsily to replicate Trent's moves and bumbles horribly. In a fever of desperation, Mikey leaves several consecutive late-night messages on the answering machine of a girl he's just met. The self-humiliation, while hilarious, also penetrates the heart with palpable pain.
As Mikey gradually discovers Trent's secrets will only work for Trent, and maybe not even as well as Trent thinks they do, the film's message is the hidebound "be true to yourself" line. The final movement, in which Mikey flirts with the Heather Graham character, using self-deprecating honesty infused with a newfound confidence gleaned from his friends, ripples with an exuberant thrill.
The epilogue details Trent's cockiness backfiring, in front of a grinning Mikey, who is forever cured of his answering-machine slavedom. It swings the movie on a note so smooth, Sinatra would approve.
● (1996). Rated R for language throughout. Starring Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. Directed by Doug Liman. 96 minutes. Available on DVD and VHS.