Jon Favreau may not be a household name yet but he is responsible for some of the most famous pop culture icons of the two decades. He started as an actor, appearing in things like Rudy and Daredevil, and he received more attention after writing and appearing in the 1990s cult comedy Swingers. But today he’s known for being responsible for Baby Yoda, the guy who started the MCU, and, as Christmas approaches, his movie Elf will be endlessly shown on basic cable.
Understandably, most people talk about his writing and directing career start with Swingers. It shows that Favreau had an ear for cool dialogue and realistic characters even in situations that seem artificial, which absolutely helped make Iron Man as good as it is.
But Doug Liman, not Favreau, directed Swingers. And while Liman’s films have been very consistent in their themes and their mise en scene, Favreau took a complete 180 degree turn in his career. Yet in between writing Swingers and directing Elf, he wrote and directed “Scorsese film as ordered on wish.com” movie called Made.
On paper, Made seems like a natural follow-up to Swingers. Favreau and Vince Vaugh star again and the film and even the plot is kind of the same – Vince Vaughn plays Ricky, someone who is obsessed with his status (he is angry when he is not allowed in a night club but Dustin “Screech” Diamond is) Favreau is a struggling professional trying to get by. This time, though, they both have mob connections and Favreau’s character Bobby uses them to get a job in New York that will hopefully get him some money so he can help raise his daughter Chloe.
There’s a lot of emphasis on the dialogue, with Vince Vaughn in particular given the same rapid-fire lines that make him sound like he’s auditioning to play Mike Hammer. But it’s one of the places the film stumbles, especially compared to Swingers. The latter was at least trying to do something new by focusing on normal people doing things that everyone would be able to recognize on an emotional level. (Like playing a Sega game for the sole purpose to killing a digital Wayne Gretzky.) But Made is another Tarantino derivative that tries to make criminals seem more like us by letting them talk about what they saw on TV last night. The difference is that Tarantino’s characters actually seemed like they had a reason to talk about those things – either because those discussions revealed a lot about the characters or because it underscored just how mundane the violent situations they were in seemed to them. Lesser writers used that technique just to make pop culture references. Besides, that formula was already stale by the end of the 90s and Made was not released until 2001.
The early aughts were a strange time for independent films. The Sundance/Miramax glory days of the nineties were basically over, and indie films were no longer fresh or exciting – ironically because major studios took all the best ideas from independent filmmakers and incorporated them into their movies. There were still some hits and cult classics (Requiem for a Dream, Memento, Napoleon Dynamite, Bend it Like Beckham) but for the most part independent filmmakers could no longer depend on an “independent” label to automatically get them any notice.
That’s how Made feels – like someone who doesn’t realize the party’s long over and it’s time to go home. Favreau still believed that putting “adult” scenes in a movie was somehow fresh. That’s why there are moments where a random character hits Ricky with a riding crop as he’s trying to sweep a floor at a construction site and why there’s a scene where the two beat up a man making a dirty phone call at a pay phone. During in the independent heyday, those scenes might have gotten some attention for just how unusual or shocking they are. But now they’re padding a flimsy plot and serve no purpose. What does it say about Ricky that he gets annoyed being hit with a riding crop? Nothing. He isn’t even particularly funny in the way he responds to it. Am I supposed to laugh that he asks the person to stop doing it?
Even if it’s not particularly great, Made is at least competent and Favreau does play around with the material effectively. From assembling a cast that includes Peter Falk (as the LA mob boss who hires Bobby and Ricky) and P. Diddy to surreal, Godardesque scenes like where Ricky goes on a profane rant where what he’s drowned out by squawking penguins at a zoo, Favreau at least knows he can break a few tropes. I wanted more of these scenes, where Favreau showed that maybe the tongue was in his cheek while making this movie. Iron Man had moments that subverted traditional super hero movies, like making the protagonist start out as an unrepentant jerk and having the villain be, not an over the top master genius, but a Salieri-esque business rival who can’t stand how successful Stark is despite making what he believes are the wrong decisions.
Perhaps that is the reason Made didn’t work for me. The original Iron Man was a subversive superhero movie that everyone thought would be a weird curiosity a best. And then it blew everyone’s expectations away. It also, unlike a lot of earlier superhero movies, managed to make its characters actual flawed human beings who are trying to be better. Swingers had that too. But Made doesn’t have any of that charm or that humanity. Its characters are unpleasant and overall, it’s not particularly funny.
There’s one scene in particular that highlights the disadvantage Made has to its later films. One of the biggest advantages indie films had over blockbusters was, since they couldn’t afford spectacle, they had to focus on more intimate relationships between their characters. The best indie films are those that made you emotionally connect to the characters just by the dialogue. If that doesn’t work, then the film won’t works.
Favreau tries to accomplish that with this scene, in which the protagonists take Bobby’s daughter to paint ceramics. And the results, are, well…
He’s trying hard to use this scene as the moment that definitely establishes who these characters are and what their relationship is with each other. If this were a movie by Richard Linklater, it would be the standout scene of the movie. But here, the scene establishes Ricky as an unrepentant boor and Bobby as a quiet man who just wants to find some peace in his life. But watching this, I don’t feel any humanity in what they’re doing. Vaughn gives a great performance, but his character is so loathsome it’s impossible to understand why anyone would hang out with him, much less with their child. Plus, it feels too much like a performance and not like a real person. I don’t get the sense that these two men have known each other very long. They try to compensate by speaking in pig Latin to each other (so the kid doesn’t overhear about their mob connections) but even that feels forced. Watching something like Goodfellas, I understood the three lead characters had known each other for a long time, I understood who they were as they went on profane rants and why they talked that way, and I understood Henry Hill was trying to “protect” his wife and children from the reality of his life. But this is all just so…unpleasant. The most well-known independent films made you sympathize with even the biggest jerks in the movie but Made doesn’t.
Made is a very unusual debut. Favreau has shown he is entirely disinterested in making movies like this anymore. (Not that he needs to with all the Disney animated remakes he’s working on now.) What makes it especially odd is how Favreau now deals almost exclusively with high fantasy and more family friendly material. But there are a few interesting elements here that reveal where some of Favreau’s later techniques come from – especially in the dialogue. Still, considering how Made feels like Favreau had creatively hit a wall and how it barely broke even at the box office, Favreau ultimately made the right choice for his career when he moved over to Disney.