"Money" Matters

Beautiful babies reborn: Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau in Made

A long time ago, during the martini emergency of 1996, a writer from this paper interviewed Jon Favreau about his movie Swingers, which he had written, co-produced, and starred in, and which was set to open in a few weeks.

At the time, no one knew that Swingers was about to launch costar Vince Vaughn into A-list stardom (with an A-hole reputation to match), while Favreau's consolation prize would be a guest role as Monica's boyfriend du jour on Friends. No one knew that these two best buddies, who had survived destitution, rejection, and spots on Doogie Howser and Larry Sanders, would be split apart by success; that they'd soon engage in a depressing public spat over who had invented phrases such as "You are so money." Nobody knew that the deeply layered competition between their characters in Swingers felt so real because it was so real.

In fact, the male-bonding/unbonding stuff was the best part of Swingers, because it rang true. The movie was a chick flick for men, obsessed with the complexities of young men's emotional lives, egos, and friendships. (Whatever guys may say, we all know their close friendships are just as weird as women's.)

So anyway, in a fit of cloddishness, the City Pages hack (a.k.a. yours truly) said something true but shitty to Favreau, along the lines of: You were great. And oh, man alive--your boy Vince Vaughn? Born movie star!

Stirred, not shaken, Favreau smiled and agreed--and then, somehow, managed to take credit for Vaughn's performance without actually taking credit. It was brilliant. He explained that he had resisted potential investors in the film who had wanted to put a major star in Vaughn's role. "I put everything on the line to get Vince in the movie," Favreau said. "So every scene he did well in was like a victory for me. My feeling is, let everybody steal every scene from me. I just want the movie to come out good."

The thing is, he really meant it. Which is why I felt like a real jackass after watching Swingers again, focusing on Favreau this time. Vaughn may be Mr. Funny Guy I'm So Drunk, but Favreau is twice the actor Vaughn is. It's his stability, subtlety, and sense of pacing that give the film its solidity: He creates the stage on which Vaughn tap-dances. It's a thankless job with a funky power dynamic. No wonder these guys broke up.

And God knows what they've been through since then. (I do know Vaughn was arrested in April for a barroom brawl--which hardly distinguishes him from the Hollywood pack.) Somehow, though, the two have reunited for Favreau's directorial debut, Made. I wish I could say the film is great, but it isn't. At least it's interesting.

The premise is simple: Bobby (Favreau) is a reliable, goodhearted lackey for Max (Peter Falk), an L.A. mob boss. His dream is to become a professional boxer while supporting his lapdancer girlfriend Jess (Famke Janssen) and her adorable little girl (Makenzie Vega). Bobby's oldest friend, Ricky (Vaughn), is a hotheaded loser with no social antennae, who wants to become a high-end racketeer. Bobby tries to help Ricky, endangering his own "career" in the process. And then his home life goes to hell. So: The first question is, if this is essentially a story about friendship, why the mob thing? The story is already deeply indebted to Elaine May's 1976 film Mikey and Nicky (starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes), about a screwy friendship between two smalltime crooks. With that baggage in hand, and a history of crime movies to compete against, Made has a much harder time making an impact than it would if Favreau had chosen a more original setting. (Of course, I'm so bored with mob movies by now, I'd settle for a falafel stand or a sock factory.)

My hunch is that this film--which Favreau also wrote and produced--is, subconsciously, a parable about its two stars. And perhaps the realm of workaday mobsterism seemed a nice parallel to Hollywood. Just take the opening scene: Vaughn and Favreau are standing half-naked on a stage, smacking the ramen out of each other for a sparse, apparently drugged audience. (They're boxers, it turns out.) The boys are putting their hearts into it, and they're barely making a living, and nobody cares. Remember how Favreau said he had fought to get Vaughn into Swingers--and then let him dominate the film? In Made, Bobby pleads with mobster Max to let Ricky come along on a routine but crucial job in New York. It's their big break, you know.

Ricky, thinking he has somehow earned this on his own, steps onto the airplane and immediately becomes the ego-monster he had always threatened to be, harassing stewardesses and, later, bell boys, drivers, and goldfish. This is Vaughn's asshole from the tail end of Swingers on speed, stripped of all charm and intellect, and funny in an incredibly hard-to-watch way. Vaughn has never looked worse physically, and he seems genuinely self-loathing, ready to lose his center in any given scene. With his scattered, manic energy, he constantly deflects our attention, handing it over to Favreau and his costars. I have to blame Vaughn for this, because no one else strays this way. (The film looks so low-budget that, in certain scenes, other actors' performances seem all the more beautiful. Falk and Favreau's conference in Max's dingy office is a particular standout.)

Fortunately, Made has a wonderfully surreal supporting cast, and a clever (though not very funny) script. The best surprise, besides a flamboyant cameo by Bud Cort, is Sean "P. Diddy" Combs as high-class New York gangster Ruiz. He first appears in a restaurant, talking on a cell phone, telling his broker to sell his Yahoo stocks: "That Internet shit is entirely too volatile." Combs is startlingly natural on camera, demanding our attention through stillness and eye contact. Born movie star!

I won't give away the ending, but I wish I could, because that's where the dreamy, benevolent spirit of the film--and, I believe, of its creator--comes out of hiding. The turning of events is barely plausible, but that's okay. It's actually a relief. I mean, it's not like we ever believed these guys were subliterate Guidos anyway. Best of all, the ending looks like an olive branch extended from one friend to another. As smugly perfect and reliable as Favreau sometimes seems in his roles, and in real life, he knows that a world of perfectly reliable people would be a bore. It's like he's admitting that even grandiose, paranoid hotheads have their uses. In fact, sometimes they can be your very best friends.

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