In 2003, in the United States, I went to university. After sunset one night, deep in autumn, I wandered down to the lounge of my residence hall and fell into a game that was already in progress.
A handful of men and one woman were naming a succession of movies. The rule was simple: you needed to name a film that starred someone who had appeared in the last movie named; no actors or movies could be repeated. This was in the days before sequelitis had taken over Hollywood, when it would become ridiculously easy to careen through a series of movies that all shared the same cast.
The first iPhone would not be released for four years, and the game played out as an enjoyable social memory test for cinephiles.
It quickly turned into a back-and-forth between me and the woman who had been there when I arrived, whom I assumed to be a sophomore. When I mentioned the 1996 movie Swingers, she paused. That, she said with the confidence with which an entomologist holding a pin addresses herself to a beetle, was a movie that a certain kind of boy liked.
This was a year before Facebook was founded. Soon enough, the idea of categorizing people according to obscure tastes would become so prevalent that it would launch and sustain the early years of Buzzfeed, but for a small-town kid newly arrived at university, the idea that awareness of a loss-making independent movie had recognizable correlates was new. We’d gone through scores of movies, none of which earned more than a raised eyebrow, a “nice one,” or a groan (if the next person in the circle was at a loss). I don’t believe it was much longer before the game broke up.
I’d learned of Swingers from Dinner For Five, a series about Hollywood on the Independent Film Channel hosted by Jon Favreau, a confirmed fan of Martin Scorsese who had written and starred in the movie. It followed Mike, Favreau’s character, through a decidedly minor arc. Mike, having just broken up and moved to a new city, longs to get back with his old girlfriend. His friend Rob tells him that would only be possible after he’s forgotten about the ex, while their friend Trent livens up matters by being very successful with women despite and because of his combination of self-confidence, boorishness, quick wit, single-mindedness, and friendliness. The movie ends with Mike proving Rob right as he hangs up on his ex to pursue what he had long, accurately, thought to be almost impossible: the start of another relationship.
Two years after Swingers, Vaughan starred in the drama A Cool Dry Place with Joey Lauren Adams and Monica Potter. Place followed Vaughan’s character, a big-city lawyer, as he moves to a small town to raise his son as a single father. It was a kind of movie that tends not to do well: earnest slice-of-life movies about young people who want to learn to act like adults and eventually succeed, despite the costs. I enjoyed it a good deal. The film, which with a gender-switch would have fit right in as a Lifetime movie of the week, went nowhere commercially, but I imagine that wasn’t the point — rather it was about establishing that Vaughan could anchor a movie by himself and play a serious role credibly.
Little did Vaughan, or anyone else in 1998 for that matter, know that such a career move would prove irrelevant given the direction Hollywood was about to take.
The year after Place’s release, Adams, who like Vaughan had come up through comedy, starred as the love interest in the Adam Sandler vehicle Big Daddy. Rather than jump into what would be a short career playing beautiful women beloved by a succession of manchildren who refuse to grow up but reveal a heart of gold in the last act, Adams continued a pivot that had started with her earlier role in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, and went into independent cinema.
In 2001, Vaughan had a cameo in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, while two years later, the year of my college movie game, he starred in Old School with Will Ferrell. It was the dawn of the lad flick period, in which men in their thirties and forties displayed the maturity of teenage boys and got laughs for it. Whereas in Swingers, Mike elicited the empathy, Rob presaged the narrative arc, and Trent prompted the belly laughs, these movies were all Trent, with three minutes of Rob-ity at the end enabling grown moviegoers to pretend that they weren’t there to see new variations on puerility. Judd Apatow’s career, for several years, was based on writing and directing comparatively thoughtful iterations on the theme. Vaughan would pass fifty before he’d have to consider making a living playing men with adult sensibilities again.
In 2004, Vaughan starred in Dodgeball. The next year, Favreau’s Dinner For Five was cancelled by its network in favor of The Henry Rollins Show. On the East Coast, the publishing industry was in thrall to the new “fratire” genre, which comically celebrated a way of life that made Trent’s R-rated antics in Swingers look tame. At Harvard, a soon-to-be dropout named Mark Zuckerberg, who had created a website called “Hot or Not” featuring headshots of female students, attracted serious investment income for his new project, Facebook, a social networking site that would make him and several of his friends accidental billionaires.
In 2008, Favreau directed Iron Man, a sci-fi flick about an inveterate playboy with a heart of gold that kicked off the series of movies known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Lately the MCU has been toying with the idea of “the multiverse”: that there exists a whole variety of parallel worlds in which history unspools differently.
I wish I lived in the timeline in which Vince Vaughan explored his dramatic side after A Cool Dry Place, in which Dinner For Five wasn’t cancelled and Jon Favreau never had to go on record simultaneously defending comic book fans and Martin Scorsese from one another. One in which Joey Lauren Adams didn’t have to choose between playing decent roles and being a major Hollywood actress. One in which Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard ever so slightly earlier, went home, and spent his life pursuing different ways of goosing money out of the system.
The movie-memory-game girl had been right: a certain kind of boy could see something unique in Swingers. Hollywood was already warming to that fact in 2003, and it would play a big role in determining the entertainment environment in which we live today.