There’s a scene in the largely terrible paint-by-numbers rom-com That Awkward Moment that sees Zac Efron sat alone in his bedroom, feverishly stalking a girl he’s recently been dumped by on Facebook whilst simultaneously giving himself a jealously fuelled running commentary on what he finds, all the while sizing up any potentially new love interests.
“Guy in the red hat…who the fuck are you? Let’s find more pictures of you…I’mma fucking look you up…What a piece of shit this guy is…”
That one moment stands out not only because it’s one of painfully few genuinely funny observations in a film almost wholly devoid of comedy, but because it’s actually relatable. Finding yourself in the middle of what was supposed to be a five minute period of procrastination turning in to an hour long forensic analysis of friends, friends of friends and what you can find on google isn’t all that uncommon amongst men - seriously. Whether or not most will admit it or not is another matter altogether.
Men in film, particularly in rom-coms, are given a somewhat torrid time and are usually represented fairly poorly. The stereotypical male character is normally a dick who thinks with his dick, has dicks for mates and an apartment furnished - you guessed it - like a dick would. Now, that might be all well and good in the long run, when the characters’ one redeeming quality hinted at towards the start of the film suddenly blossoms in an epiphany lead personality transplant that miraculously occurs in the third act, but it becomes a bit of a stretch to expect us to buy that same unrealistic tale of redemption film after film after film after film.
Of course, if he’s not a borderline sociopath with a six-pack that shags everything that moves in the spare time he has away from ‘bro-ing down’ with his band of bellend brothers, he’s a virgin wallflower that’s terrified of women who regularly fails to display any sense of having social skills, or a basic knowledge of what they are. You either have one extreme or the other. Occasionally there’s a doughy Josh Gad / Jonah Hill type floating around so that the female protagonist doesn’t just have all female friends, but it’s made clear early on that this character doesn’t stand a chance romantically, despite an obvious attraction on his part. He hasn’t just been plucked directly from a Diet Coke advert, after all.
The most frustrating part about this is that Hollywood has done male characters perfectly in the past. In order to find the best example, and the one that remains the standard bearer, we have to go back to 1996, to a time when Jon Favreau was thin and Vince Vaughn was good. The film is Swingers, the setting is Hollywood and the writing is genius. If you’ve ever wondered how most men think and act when left to their own devices and what most male friendships are actually like, this is the one to watch.
Unlike most male based comedy-dramas, this isn’t just a buddy film or a standard coming-of-age tale, but an honest exploration of the insecurity, self-doubt, desperation, rejection and fear of inadequacy that twenty-something men like to pretend don’t existence. The premise is rather simple: Mike, a struggling comedian from the East Coast, has moved to LA to seek fame and fortune as an actor, which lead to the break-up of his relationship back home. He’s not working, and he hasn’t moved on from his ex. His friends, rather than goad, try in their own unique ways to help him back on his own two feet as he toys with the idea of giving up on LA and moving back home.
Favreau, who wrote the film largely based on his own friends and experiences, is excellent as the lead. He spends days at a time wondering aloud to himself in a less than desirable flat. He eats poorly, doesn’t feel like socialising, and when does, ends up coming across far too desperate to any women interested and scares them off. There’s a scene involving a number and a voicemail message which is like a period version of the aforementioned Facebook scene. The film manages to be consistently hilarious whilst still allowing you to form an emotional connection with the characters through shared experiences and relatability.
The depiction of friendship is also based entirely in reality. Rather than just be additional members of cast that give Mike an excuse to go out and experience LA, they’re his confidants and surrogate family. They eat together, have petty arguments over video games and encourage one-another to pursue women, but you never get the impression that each of them doesn’t want the very best for their friends. There are several scenes in which two men sit down and openly discuss their fears and emotions in a manner that comedies rarely show, and there’s an added depth to their relationships that increase their believability.
There’s an appreciation there that goes against the macho grain, allowing the characters to be at their most vulnerable when in the company of friends, rather than feeling the need to slip in to any show of bravado. That comfort in one another's company shown between two male friends is more honest than most films dare to be - men can show more affection to their friends than a pat on the back and a punch in the arm, and it shouldn’t be something filmmakers are reluctant to show on screen. I’ve seen my friends cry, I’ve seen my friends unhappy and I’ve seen them when they're in need of a long talk and a helping hand. I know their hopes and their fears, and they know mine in return - men talk about more than just women and sport, and it’s unrepresentative for them to be shown any other way in film.
Mike is full of bitterness, self-pity and fear. He’d quite easily be unlikeable if you didn’t see so much of yourself in him. Yet, between him and Trent, who thinly masks his own insecurities with a wicked way with words, Swingers manages to be the most honest representation of twenty-something males I’ve ever seen. At first you’ll probably remember the numerous quotable lines most, and the scenes that had you laughing the most. But the part of Swingers that stays with you the longest is the knowledge that without his friends, Mike would never have gotten over his slump alone - and that’s so money.