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SWINGIN' DOWN THE LANE

11:00 PM, Dec 1, 1996 • By MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE
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Like the deadly virus in the movie Outbreak that hatches in a tiny village then almost eats the world, Quentin Tarantino has gone from minor curiosity to malevolent force of nature in a very short time. Pulp Fiction, the young director's 1994 breakthrough film, has become a cinematic benchmark. Its gangster chic, shameless pilfering of scenes and styles from other movies, and self-conscious references to pop culture are now the first language that many upcoming directors learn to speak.


At first glance, the low-budget art-house comedy Swingers seems to be the newest Pulp Fiction. A surprise hit that advertises itself as a celebration of "lounge," the Rat Pack-worshipping, martinis-and-swing-music milieu that has recently become popular among rock and rollers tired of grunge, Swingers' appropriation of the latest pop-culture fad appears to be nothing more than an exercise in cheap Tarantino-style irony. Yet the film, an occasionally sweet and witty story of lost and found love, almost succeeds by rejecting the Tarantino morality, if not the Tarantino style.


Swingers follows Mike (Jon Favreau, who also wrote the script), a hardly-working comedian who has just moved to Los Angeles after being dumped by his girlfriend of six years. Mike is devastated by the breakup, and to salve his wounds he teams up with an out-of-work actor named Trent on a quest for love and dissipation. Trent, played with swarmy charm by Vince Vaughn, is all surface, speaking in an ersatz Dean Martin dialect that refers to anything cool as "money" and women as "babies." Trent and Mike make a pilgrimage to Vegas and lose all their money, bum around L.A., and troll for babies with two other destitute actors who, like Trent, dress like the year is 1958 and they are working as Sinatra's bodyguards.


Swingers, like Pulp Fiction, is partly a film about film. When Mike and his buddies aren't drunk or trying to "score digits" -- get a girl's phone number -- they talk about movies, even arguing about their favorite shots from particular films. When Mike accuses Tarantino of lifting from Martin Scorsese, a friend replies that "it's the movies -- everybody copies everybody." To prove the point, directorcinematographer Doug Liman stages the next scene as a deliberate imitation of Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs -- and later pays homage to Goodfellas and Saturday Night Fever.


These scenes, however, don't fit with the rest of Swingers, and their incongruity reveals the conflict at the heart of the movie. However hard they try, Favreau and Liman are just too human to be Tarantino. Favreau's Mike is a fully sympathetic character, and there is no such person in the Tarantino oeuvre. In the film's most painful scene, Mike meets a girl at a bar, gets her phone number, calls her the same night and leaves six messages on her machine, his desperation ruining any chance he might have had. By filming from waist-level up, Liman relentlessly captures Mike's writhing as he slowly implodes. With Jay Leno's sweetness and Woody Allen's neurosis -- he even looks like a combination of the two men -- Favreau's Mike is the only one in the movie who finds Trent's nonstop hip-speak cloying and manipulative. He sees the deeper psychological problems behind the fact that Trent -- like many of his generation -- is so saddied with irony and secondhand style he can't break character and open up.


The movie Swingers really wants to be is not Pulp Fiction or a Rat Pack vehicle like Robin and the Seven Hoods, but 1982's remarkable Diner. Set in 1950s Baltimore -- a time when people really did talk like Dean Martin -- Diner also follows a group of bored, directionless guys trying to come to grips with relationships and growing up. Instead of hanging around a diner, though, Mike and his friends travel in a tight car caravan around L.A. and glide into parking spaces together with the precision of synchronized swimmers.


Yet something is missing. Diner has characters whose idiosyncrasies add up to more than self-pity, and dialogue that goes deeper than pastiches of popular culture. They suffer real human insecurities but survive on wit and the ability to bond with one another. The film has a virtue that disappears from Swingers whenever Mike's not on screen -- heart. Mike would have fit in well with the guys from Diner; without him, Swingers could be called Ciphers.