After the success of 1996's Swingers, it would have been easy for writer-star Jon Favreau to follow up the cult comedy fave with another excursion in nouveau hipster catch phrases and swingin' big band music. But for Made, his directorial debut and long-awaited reunion with co-star Vince Vaughn, Favreau has rather admirably taken a different, unexpected route, and the ride is certainly a witty and entertaining one.
Knowing that Made is completely unrelated to the Doug Liman-directed Swingers (that is, aside from sharing common talent) may still not prepare fans of the previous film for this one's distinctly darker flavor. Favreau and Vaughn again play friends here, but the relationship between struggling L.A. boxers/construction workers Bobby and Ricky is far more volatile than that of Swingers' Mike and Trent, as summed up by film's opening scene. As the two face each other in a bout, Vaughn's cocky Ricky openly mocks Favreau's no-nonsense Bobby, setting himself up for a big pummelling. The cycle constantly repeats itself in a figurative sense after the pair are tapped by their construction boss, small-time mobster Max (Peter Falk), to handle what should be a quick and easy job in New York City. Bobby wants nothing more than to just do what he's told and collect the payment that could provide a more stable life for him, his stripper girlfriend Jess (Famke Janssen), and her daughter Chloe (Makenzie Vega, rid of the painful fake lisp she sported in The Family Man). Ricky, on the other hand, fancies himself an instant organized crime big shot, leading him to do a number of none-too-bright things that draw the ire of Big Apple big boss Ruiz (Sean "Don't Call Me 'Puffy'" Combs, who fares better than expected in his acting debut), his underling Horace (Faizon Love), and most of all the increasingly impatient Bobby.
Favreau doesn't give an artificial and inappropriate sunniness to Made's criminal milieu; this film even lacks a certain spring in its step as far as pacing. The slower, more rambling progression works well in this context, though, for it adds to the dark undercurrent that runs through the film. While Ricky's antics are a primary source of light amusement, the sense of foreboding lends an edge of danger to his bumbling actions; there is always the real possibility that any one of his wrong moves could be their final one. The largely hand-held camera work by cinematographer Christopher Doyle also adds to the gritty atmosphere.
Traces of grave seriousness turn up in Made (particularly in Bobby's side of the story), but there is no mistaking that Favreau has cast a comic tale inside this dark world. At the center of all of the laughs is Ricky, whose delusions and general cluelessness make for someone truly abrasive and annoying--which is exactly the often-hilarious point, and Vaughn nails the role so perfectly that you may just want to beat some sense into him, much like how Bobby tries to at various junctures. Favreau puts the pair in physical conflict once or twice too many, but the banter that typically leads up to fighting, while not Swingers-quotable, is spirited and sharp, as is the dialogue on the whole. False notes are rare among the entire cast, including those in customary throwaway roles; even the likes of a briefly seen flight attendant (Jennifer Bransford) and hotel bellboy (Sam Rockwell) exhibit some level of colorful personality.
Despite their clear cut differences in tone and style, comparisons between Swingers and Made are inevitable, so to answer the burning question: with its many memorable lines and scenes (the classic one with the answering machine most quickly comes to mind), Swingers is the breezier, funnier, more enjoyable film. But the reasons for my Swingers preference once again points up the fundamental differences between the two. Swingers is more a movie of moments while Made is more about the larger picture--a picture that may not end up with the fervent following of its flashier predecessor, but one that is definitely worth a look.