Return with me momentarily to the apartment of Mary Richards, single successful career girl of the 70s. Our heroine is explaining the birds and the bees to her landlady’s daughter, Bess, who wants to know if loving a boy means you have to have sex with him. No, no, no, Mary shouts as she jumps out of her seat, frantically waving her spaghetti arms: sex and love are two different things. Contented, Bess wanders away to watch Saturday-morning cartoons, but Mary soon has second thoughts about how she handled the situation. Her best friend, Rhoda, consoles her. Don’t worry, Mare, she says. “I don’t know what you did for the kid, but I think you just changed my life.”
The joke here is that girls approach sex thinking it’s about love, and guys approach sex thinking it’s about sex. But what if we turned the idea on its head and made it about a guy who can’t separate love and sex? Then suddenly we don’t have comedy anymore: we have romance—which goes a long way toward explaining why all the women I know, including the earnest feminist ones, have found themselves utterly charmed by Swingers.
Movies depicting the angst and antics of young, white heterosexual males were a dime a dozen this past year: in addition to Swingers, Bottle Rocket, Beautiful Girls, The Pallbearer, She’s the One, and Ed’s Next Move come immediately to mind. Bottle Rocket—Wes Anderson’s witty, Texas-tinged meditation on grand larceny and the bonds of childhood friendship—was by far the best of this lot, but Swingers, a cheaply made comedy about LA chick chasers that came out in early November to almost universal acclaim, seems to have demonstrated the most staying power.
“I wanna be a gentleman,” says Mike, the sweetly stumbling hero who can’t seem to get the women he meets off the friendship track and into the bedroom. “You gotta get off this respect thing,” counsels his buddy Trent. Himself a cool, confident hit with the ladies—or, as he refers to them, the “babies”—Trent is on a mission to make Mike more successful with women, to drag him out of the celibate funk he’s been in since his girlfriend of six years dumped him. He must persuade Mike to stop being such a gentleman and to start thinking of women as bunny rabbits: unthinking, inarticulate creatures—prey, essentially, or, to use one of the script’s many colorful locutions, “tasty skanks.”
On a quick trip to Las Vegas and later at a series of retro-hip LA nightspots, Mike tries to switch over to Trent’s scavenger school of babe management. He fails in a variety of embarrassing ways. Then Mike decides to just be himself, and voila! Mike gets a girl. And not just any girl: he gets a girl with a distinctly 1940s-ish name (Lorraine), a girl who pulls her hair back in two combs a la Dorothy Lamour, a girl with seams up the back of her stockings, a girl who knows how to swing dance. An old-fashioned girl, one might say, except for the fact that she asks him to dance.
While Mike is at the bar getting along famously with Lorraine, the movie periodically cuts back to the booth where Trent sits with another member of their posse, a boy named Sue. There’s also a “baby” sitting with them—some girl Sue has obviously laid and “forgotten” to call. Like all the girls in this movie, she’s just a supernumerary and receives scant attention. The boys are busy hanging all over each other, both literally and figuratively. Trent has his arm enthusiastically around Sue, and their attention is focused entirely on Mike. The message couldn’t be clearer: in this particular subsection of breeder culture, love may be something that happens between men and women, but sex is something boys play at with other boys.
* * *
“You wanna talk, you always got the guys at the diner. You don’t need a girl if you wanna talk.” Set in the waning days of 1959, Barry Levinson’s DinerM gracefully chronicled the coming of age of a generation of boys who weren’t quite sure what girls were for—beyond sex, of course. “I can come down here, we can bullshit the whole night away, but I cannot hold a five-minute conversation with Beth,” says Shrevie, the exasperated young husband played by Daniel Stern. “The whole thing with girls is painful,” Billy quietly sums up as he and Eddie get drunk in a burlesque house. “And it seems like it keeps getting more painful instead of easier.” It’s been 15 years since Diner was made and nearly 40 since the era in which it was set, but judging from our recent spate of movies about white boys and their romantic difficulties, not much has changed.
With its large cast of characters and its winter setting, Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls—brooding, citified piano player returns to his working-class hometown for a reunion with his idiot friends—came awfully close to replicating Diner‘s wistful tone. Like Diner, it’s a movie about a bunch of boys who’ve only just realized that life may not give them everything they thought it would when they were 18. Distraught by this revelation, the lead character, Willie, played by a mutton-chopped Timothy Hutton, is desperately in search of some Novocain for the soul. Life is hard, he might say: you feel like cheating on your girlfriend, but Uma Thurman won’t sleep with you and it’s illegal to have sex with the adorable, sophisticated 13-year-old next door.
Like Diner, Beautiful Girls would have us believe being a guy is hard, confusing, nay, downright torturous. Not Swingers. Here is pure exuberance, without all that messy nostalgic yearning. Here is a movie unafraid to come right out and showcase the sheer idiot joy involved in being a boy among boys, a movie brave enough to show what we girls have been silently suspecting all along: not only is it not hard to be a boy, it’s actually quite a lot of fun.
* * *
“Dean gave no sign of discomfiture, just a goofy glad grin that said to us, Ain’t we gettin’ our kicks anyway? And that was it.” In Swingers Trent is 100 percent goofy glad grin, the perfect latter-day Dean Moriarty. In his mythic early days, Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road, Dean “just talked, and talked, and talked with a voice that was once hypnotic and strange and was said to make the girls come across by sheer force of persuasion.” Like Dean, Trent is the magnetic center of a group of male disciples who watch him in wonder. When it comes to women, every word out of Trent’s mouth is magic. His first sexual overture of the film—a come-on to a Vegas cocktail waitress—is so utterly patronizing Mike is embarrassed and offended. But it works. She comes on. And she brings a friend for Mike.
Sensitive, hesitant, and college-educated (three things Trent is not), Mike is a perfect Sal Paradise. Sal, Kerouac’s errant narrator/alter ego, was also on the road looking for kicks but “hated to drive and drove carefully.” To Kerouac, writing in and about the late 40s, kicks meant “a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road,” not to mention assorted hootchy-kootchy joints, Negro bars, Mexican whores, and constant bop. For Dean these kicks are an end unto themselves—”That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF”—but Sal’s intentions are nobler. “I want to marry a girl,” he tells Dean and Marylou, “so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old.”
By the end of the book Sal’s found her, “the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long.” But constant kicks have taken their toll on Dean, who’s become a stuttering fool: “He couldn’t talk anymore…. We listened, all ears. But he forgot what he wanted to say.” From there On the Road descends to its utterly elegiac end. But Swingers isn’t in the melancholy business. It gets sweet, but it never gets sad, never turns the corner into Beautiful Girls territory: weepy self-indulgence that leaves the girls in the audience going, “Get over yourself.”
Like his charismatic cousin, Trent is fated to lose his cool when he loses his command over language: he thinks a “baby” talking baby talk and making strange faces at him in a diner is putting the moves on him, but the woman is actually attempting to entertain her infant. In an instant, the goofy grin is gone. Mike, who like Sal Paradise has held out for sex and love together—for a girl with whom it is possible to rest one’s soul—is thoroughly vindicated, and big bad daddy Trent is revealed for what he really is: a big baby.
* * *
Any way you slice it—as beat as Dean and company or as straight as the Diner boys—the postwar America that Swingers so handily evokes with its daddy-o’s and its Dean Martin songs was one in which the boys had all the kicks, and there wasn’t much a girl could do about it but sulk. The women in On the Road do get their one big chance to lay into the holy goof for his sexual irresponsibility, his inability to think about anything but “what’s hanging between your legs,” but mostly all they get to do is watch. “Marylou was watching Dean as she had watched him clear across the country and back, out of the corner of her eye—with a sullen, sad air, as though she wanted to cut off his head and hide it in her closet, an envious and rueful love of him so amazingly himself, all raging and sniffy and crazy-wayed, a smile of tender dotage but also sinister envy.”
These days kicks for straight boys are pretty much reduced to video games and the occasional nine holes of golf. Girls still can’t piss off the back of flatbed trucks, but we can pick up the phone and call a boy, which is all it takes for Lorraine, the girl with the seams up the back of her stockings, to win her feckless swinger. And who knows? Maybe someday soon we’ll have a spate of movies devoted to the angst and antics of heterosexual females. In the meantime, we can watch an adorable baby like Trent glide across the screen without feeling in the least like we’d like to have his head filed away in a closet between our mary janes and our mini backpacks. At the sight of such charming idiocy, the prerogative of the modern woman is simply to smile—all tender dotage and nary an ounce of envy.