Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: bro, they made an Entourage movie. Time to spend a little time looking back through the annals of lifestyle porn for horny twentysomething dudes.

The trick in writing about Swingers almost two decades after it entered this world is to remember to talk about it as a movie and not for the remarkably large cultural influence it had for several years following its release. For the movie got in on the ground floor of the neo-swing movement of the '90s and early '00s, so early that most of the world outside of California didn't know that movement existed yet when the film exploded in its little way. Or even not so little. 1996, the year of the film's U.S. release, was maybe the exact peak of the too-brief period when an indie production could become a legitimate mainstream talking point, and Swingers absolutely did just that. And it carried along with it (and was, in turn, carried by) a new love of big-band style swing music, and the kinds of retro clubs and classic cocktails that go along with that music. I confess to having absolutely no clue whether the film or the lifestyle still have even the remotest cultural currency: I happen to be in exactly the narrowly-defined age cohort that encountered Swingers's role in pop culture in college in the early '00s (and yet it took me until just now to actually watch it, which was an extremely weird experience), and this perhaps dooms me to being forever convinced of an omnipresence it does not possess any longer. But this much is true, anyway: Swingers was seismic in its moment. Swingers is why we have Vince Vaughn's career, an affection for Las Vegas in white American males born after 1975,* and Jon Favreau as the director of Iron Man.

But here I go, doing exactly the thing I said you shouldn't do, like an asshole. Not quite as much of an asshole as the characters in Swingers, but an asshole nonetheless.

Written by Favreau, Swingers is basically autobiographical, at the level of theme, place, and character, if not story. It stars Favreau and Vaughn as Mike and Trent, two not-getting-any-younger men in Los Angeles trying desperately to find some kind of professional traction, based largely on the way that the actors themselves poked around and inhabited life during their pre-fame days. To pass the time, Trent picks up women, and tries to show Mike how to do the same, only Mike hasn't gotten over the relationship he abandoned when he moved to California six months prior. With the help of their three buddies, Rob (Ron Livingston), Sue (Patrick Van Horn), and Charles (Alex Désert), Trent tries to teach Mike all about the game of seduction, and how to be a pick-up artist (concepts which weren't as viscerally toxic in 1996 as certain ghastly subcultures on the internet have since made them, though there's still a foundational level of unpleasantness to the acts). Mike is pretty terrible at all of these things, or at being a fun, laid-back, hedonistic Angelino generally; he's that one person in the group who you can never catch smiling or looking particularly relaxed.

Swingers generally falls into that weird valley occupied by a surprising number of movies, where it depicts a lifestyle in seductive, TV-commercial images, makes its most charismatic and quotable character the one most outspoken mouthpiece for that lifestyle, and then wraps up by saying, "but of course that's all bullshit and people who live like that are shallow and will never know love". Maybe not quite that extreme. The last scene certainly makes it clear that any resemblance between Trent and a narcissistic jerk has been quite deliberate, and what Mike has needed all along is a different flavor of advice from a different kind of man. Still, this is ultimately a generous, shaggy comedy, and harsh judgments against the characters and what they do aren't on its radar. Do you have a friend whose behavior you don't really agree with and you suppose that if you strictly followed through on all of your ethical beliefs, you shouldn't be their friend, but it would never actually cross your mind to give them a bad time about it or cut them out of your life? Swingers adopts that attitude with Trent, and that's only in the moments when it isn't basically going along with him.

It's beyond question that Favreau's writing and even more so Doug Liman's directing and cinematography do a great deal to make the culture around the swing revival look utterly enticing and classy (I'd include production designer Brad Halvorson, but frankly, given the literally out-of-pocket production budget, it's not clear what percentage of the locations are just dressed the way the filmmakers found them). The film has the soft, grainy look and slightly washed colors of cheap '90s film stock - the look of Reservoir Dogs and its many imitators, in whose company Swingers unexpectedly but deliberately places itself, despite being no more of a gangster movie than it is a Japanese period picture - and it makes that economical necessity a virtue, by letting that drive a kind of hazy timelessness. The vocabulary and behavior, as well as Vaughn's terrifyingly youthful baby face, are all time-stamped to the mid-'90s, but to look at Swingers, you'd have a bit of a hard time placing it exactly. That "when is it?" feeling blurs the lines between swing as a hip affection and swing as a living art form, which intensifies towards the end in a narratively contrived dance sequence that's nevertheless the most stylish and emotionally pure moment in the movie.

The film absolutely, incontestably works as an advertisement for a hip attitude, as a celebration of a particular kind of club scene, and as a visit to a kind of preening masculinity that's (ostensibly) funny and appealing, though you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. It's lovely in its scuzzy lo-fi aesthetic, the dialogue snaps, and Vaughn, young enough to have not learned what his fallback tics were yet, is the most magnetic human being you could put onscreen. For all that, I'm not sure that Swingers does much with that: it wants to be a close study of where male friendships and social dominance intersect, and it doesn't fail to be that, but the characters are a bit thin to hang too much on them. The three not-Trents are vague enough that even as I was watching the movie, I wouldn't swear to knowing who was attached to which plot threads. Favreau's acting, meanwhile, isn't up to his smart, personalising writing; his Mike is brittle and unyielding enough - you can tell that the actor had a "thing" he was doing as the spine for every individual scene, and he frequently won't let go of it - that it's less the case that we want to see him change and grow because change and growth are healthy, than because he's somewhat tedious to be around. And that, in turn, makes the overall film feel less "having guy friends is the best" and more "if we can't dump this dude, let's at least try to fix him".

What it lacks as a cutting character drama, Swingers makes up for in easily quaffable lifestyle porn, though it's up for debate whether one of those things is equal to the other. Regardless, the film has its seductive appeal, however shallow, and it captures the rhythms of hanging out and talking about Life And Stuff in a relaxed, undemanding way with unforced delivery of dialogue that has the tangy specificity of how a very particular type of people talk. The subsequent careers of its principals feel exactly right: Liman heading for glitzy thrillers where his persuasive, inveigling images could do good work at selling popcorn and being blissfully entertaining, Vaughn to refine variations on self-satisfied American maledom in movies that aren't too hard to avoid, Favreau to craft cinematic spaces for smallish people to comfortably hang out. And I might add editor Stephen Mirrione to that list, for putting together images with just enough flair that when a more driven visual stylist in the form of Steven Soderbergh got hold of him, he could combine a certain craftiness with his evident clarity and good sense of momentum (to its great benefit, Swingers never lags for even a minute). It's not the case that Swingers is great itself, but it's amiable enough, and impressively executed for something with such microscopic resources, that it's pleasing to think that everybody involved got good results from it.

Or anyway, the phrase, "Vegas, baby, Vegas!" Close enough.