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Men give each other a lot of bullshit romantic advice, but you will never hear a larger load of delirious crapola than in the 96 transporting minutes of Swingers. Mike (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script) is eating his heart out over a breakup that took place six months ago, when he moved from Queens to Hollywood to kick-start his career as a comedian. His friends Trent (Vince Vaughn), Rob (Ron Livingston), and Sue (Patrick Van Horn), all struggling actors, are as indulgent as any crew of grease-haired ladykillers can be, but their attempts to jolly and psych Mike out of his fug are thinly disguised efforts to get him to stop being a stone drag and rejoin the living. What they can’t see is that their definition of living is as wanting as Mike’s understanding of love.
Swingers purports to reflect the neo-lounge stylings of a new generation of cocktail drinkers and Rat Pack idolizerssurrounding press touts the film’s use of such locations as the Dresden Room and the Three of Clubs, rediscovered L.A. nightspots that grew hip about five years ago and died, I like to think, the night Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland showed up at the Dresden while a dozen friends and I were trying to celebrate my birthday.
But the real punch line is that the guys haven’t glommed onto cocktail chic for its hip factorthey don’t play music at home, they don’t sport Ocean’s Eleven posters, they don’t take exquisite care over their drink orders (more often than not it’s beer). They’re just a bunch of geeks who found each other and stay together so that the rest of the world won’t find out what geeks they are. The dated, glam lifestyle in which they clothe themselves is an efficient way to pass for cool. Like everything about this charming movie, its use of swinger style is glossy on the outside, bittersweet in the middle.
They indulge shamelessly in their own faux-swingin’ lingo”money” is an adjective for cool, sharp, high-class; “It’s on,” they breathe when one of them successfully picks up a girl. Trent tags every sentence with “baby” and can’t think of a more suitable mecca of fun than fabulous Las Vegas.
To cheer Mike up, Trent shanghais him for the desert drive to Vegas, where they burst upon a casino shooting their cuffs and raising visions of all the free drinks and hotel suites the pit bosses will rain upon them. What no one told them is that Vegas has changed in 30 yearsthe blue-hairs and bikers and trailer-park families that speckle modern casinos don’t recognize this antique impersonation of slick high rollers, and neither does the new touristy, family-friendly Vegas. Scrambling to keep up appearances, Mike loses his money in record time.
All through this movie Mike loses, fast and painfully. He chats up a pretty girl at a bar and then calls her six times that night insisting he’s not desperate. His friends try everything to get him in the game againfrom the “you’re a bear and she’s a bunny” pep talk to a meticulous scheduling of phone-back possibilities that stretches from two to six days depending on the circumstances.
In between Mike’s moping periods, during which he doesn’t abandon his actorly side enough to stop indicating that, while he’s depressed, he’s also acting depressed, they drag him out to clubs, parties, and early-morning breakfasts at a crummy Hollywood diner. The parties are hopping affairs, jam-packed with actors, models, and art-damaged types, which our heroes always leave at peak capacity sneering, “This place is dead.”
The diner is a dreary, unromantic place on the lower level of a crummy motel, and its inhospitableness to their self-romanticism is a perfect metaphor for the gap between the characters’ fantasies and the grim reality of their rather ordinary lives. For every confident trapping they adopt, the script provides a sly undoing. It makes for amusing, poignant human comedy, but it’s also a commentary on moviemaking.
When the heroes talk about great scenes, like the pointless, showoffy tracking shot from Goodfellas or the slo-mo march of the assassins in Reservoir Dogs, the camera obliges with Swingers versions. It’s rather sweet, since the movie seems to be rooting for its own characters the way they do for each other”You’re so money, baby, and you don’t even know it.” At the same time, there’s a shallowness to their endorsement of these signifiers; the recent history that moves them so is actually a third- or fourth-generation copy of an original they don’t know exists. What Tarantino borrowed from Scorsese, Scorsese borrowed from Godard, who borrowed from the American gangster films and the absurd youthquaking culture that was blossoming in Europe around him. The guys in Swingers are so naive they don’t even know where they got their style, much less how to make it work for them.
Truman Capote’s moving, mysterious story “The Grass Harp” had a doomed run as a play and flopped around in script form for years before Charlie Matthau (son of Walter) got this big-screen version made. A parable of kinship and freedom, of obligations to oneself, one’s community, and one’s friends, The Grass Harp tells the story of teenage orphan Collin Fenwickstoop-shouldered, shy, awkwardand the cousins with whom he lives: pained, money-hoarding Verena Talbo, the richest woman in town, and sensual, retiring Dolly, who paints everything pink, gathers roots and herbs for a dropsy cure taught to her by gypsies, and fades into walls when she doesn’t want to be seen.
Relationships at the Talbo house deteriorate when Verena tries to take a hand in Dolly’s medicine business, and Dolly, Collin, and Dolly’s childhood best friend Catherine retreat to the branches of a glorious china tree where they live out the autumn, joined by old Judge Cool, too smart to have so much time on his hands, and aided by the local bad boy, a kind of sexy Huck Finn. The local citizenry appears every so often to try to talk or shoot them down, but the days pass in a haze of chin-high grass and river catfish, and when everyone in the tree has learned what they had to learn, only then do they rejoin town life.
Matthau’s version stars Sissy Spacek doing a generic prim-old-bird act as Verena, luminous Piper Laurie as Dolly, Walter Matthau as the judge, and Jack Lemmon cannily cast as the con man Dr. Morris Ritz. Edward Furlong takes the role of Collin, but the script is oddly skewed to push Collin’s presence to one side; the story doesn’t seem to need him, and the look of wonderment as he “falls in love” with the ethereal Dolly is the same confused smirk he sports in every other scene.
This Grass Harp is sentimental, predictable, and rather gorgeously shoteverything is bathed in the golden glow that young filmmakers imagine suffused the daily existence of our forebears. It makes for pretty, unobjectionable family fare, since Capote’s subtleness and the rough, bitter undertone of his writing have proved uncapturable as usual.
The Associate posits a ruthless business world full of phonies and hard-asses who are so inextricably bound up in the old-boy network that they hardly notice how shabbily they treat those not so plugged in. If we are expected to root for the underdog who outmaneuvers these sharks while burdened with the lesser handicaps of being black, female, and smarter than her bosses, the filmmakers should probably draw a clear delineation of the terms.
But The Associate is a muddlean unfunny onein which Whoopi Goldberg as Laurel Ayres, the brilliant but mistreated financial analyst, thinks the way to get plum clients to sign a contract is to drag them out of a nudie bar and hand them a pen. Screenwriter Nick Thiel sees no difference between old-boy wheel-greasing, like showing one’s clients a good time, and genuinely outrageous acts, as when Laurel’s partner Frank (Tim Daly) tells her to buy the client’s wife a gift. But if the white-shoe firm takes Laurel for granted, neither is she choosing her battles all that carefully. Weirdly, she agrees to the shopping trip the morning after she puts up the fight at the strip joint. While the movie is still laying out its moral grid, it can’t convince us this woman deserves to trump her corporate foes.
Laurel finally goes into business for herself, but adrift from the big corporation’s tacit bestowal of legitimacy, the brick wall is still firmly in place. Desperate, she creates a “partner,” an older white male with a brilliant, if computer-generated, financial track record and a number of exotic hobbies that keep him away from his Manhattan office. “Robert S. Cutty” becomes a figure of mystery and majesty in the finance world, with everyone from business gossip columnist Cindy Mason (Lainie Kazan, whose bosom appears to be experiencing a nuclear reaction) to a kind of finance-world whore (Bebe Neuwirth, disgracefully wasted) to Donald Trump wanting to learn his secrets.
Eventually, Laurel is pushed have “Cutty” make an appearance. So she undergoes a grotesque makeover, thanks to a drag-queen friend, and emerges blinking beneath an obvious rubber mask. In drag and out of it, Laurel gets none of the credit for the Cutty/Ayres firm’s financial know-howit all goes to the nonexistent white man. I can’t imagine any women, no matter how mistreated at work, degraded enough to find this premise empowering.
Moviemakers bend over backward to let Whoopi’s race pass unnoticed, whether in traditionally offensive roles as the caretaker of little white kids (Clara’s Heart; Corinna, Corinna; Bogus) or its modern counterpart, the exasperated caretaker of big white kids (Ghost, Sister Act, Made in America). Here, even when Laurel is being screwed careerwise for being a woman, her race is ignoredas if the corporation that treats her so badly has loaded up on chummy, exclusive African-American vice presidents. It’s no wonder Goldberg has been turning in such wan, rote performancesfilmmakers’ horror of dealing with her race, as well as her polished, mainstream appeal, lets her glide along on that look of slightly anguished sensibleness. Only Dianne Wiest shines in The Associate, playing a mousy, underestimated secretary, arms folded in front of her like a little Russian doll before her intricately cross-referenced computer programs. When pleased, she heaves and fizzes like a bubbling Jacuzzi.CP