Remember when Vince Vaughn was so money? A long, lean panther in a shiny suit padding through L.A.'s late-night lounge scene stalking beautiful babies? You could sense the uncertainty behind the swagger; the waver behind the cocky wink. The sarcasm that slipped sideways through a half smile was sly, knowing and a shade fearful.
It was 1996 when "Swingers" came along. The film would be the first to define Vaughn for most of us and he would come to embody its vision of retro hip. Other careers would be helped by the film, but for Vaughn it would turn out to be star-making material.
Like a lot of people, I fell hard for the promise of Vaughn. Could he develop depth and finesse to match the roguish charm in the way of Paul Newman? Would he stretch beyond the comedy in stunning fashion as Bill Murray has? Or figure out how to mine a darker, damaged side as Michael Keaton does? Or would he settle for Chevy Chasing his way through life, collecting cash while he can?
Reading the tea leaves of the 30 movies he's been in over the 13 years since "Swingers," frankly, it doesn't look good for artistic promise beating out money in the bank.
Vaughn has gone from intriguing to repetitive. The $63 million plus that the mediocre "Couples Retreat" has made in its first two weeks will only make matters worse. Hollywood has a bad habit of confusing money with quality.
I hate that about Hollywood. And I hate what's happening, or not happening, with Vince Vaughn's career. In fact, now that I think of it, there are 10 things that I hate about Vince these days. . . .
1. He's gotten lazy. Don't believe me? Take a random scene from "Couples Retreat" and another from "Four Christmases." Now close your eyes and listen to Vaughn and, unless he says "Santa," I will bet two-to-one you can't tell which film it's from; $63 million not withstanding, at some point the masses will tire of the same shtick.
2. He doesn't do drama. Vaughn has mostly skirted gritty stories, and that's a shame. In "Return to Paradise," as the friend who holds the fate of Joaquin Phoenix's character in his hands after a trip to Malaysia goes terribly wrong, Vaughn showed that he could do more than merely tread deep water opposite Anne Heche's and Phoenix's strengths.
3. He always takes the lead now. He had only a few scenes scattered here and there in the assassination comedy of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," but Vaughn gave a sharp film extra bite. Despite the high wattage of costars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, he was unforgettable as Pitt's addled boss, a particular incident with Mom and a gun comes to mind. A tight turn can pay off big: Consider the Oscar nomination William Hurt picked up for a riveting few minutes in "A History of Violence."
4. He's so stingy with his vulnerability. Vaughn has an appealing softness about him that he doesn't play to often enough. It was there in "Old School" as a reluctant Mr. Mom covered his toddler's ears when the guy-talk went raunchy. But it was as the serious, sensitive single dad in "A Cool, Dry Place," that he found a way to lose himself inside that small-town lawyer. There were moments, good ones, where "Vince Vaughn" was nowhere to be found.
5. He's afraid to be the bad guy. Granted, critics were none too kind after the Norman Bates fiasco of Gus Van Sant's remake of "Psycho," but one misstep is no reason to stop trying. What's needed here is something a bit more like Michael Caine's turn in "Dressed to Kill." With the right knife, I know Vaughn can get in touch with his inner villain -- like his serial killer in "Clay Pigeons," only better and sans the goofy laugh.
6. He mostly plays with friends. Jon Favreau may be his BFF, but at this point in the game I think we'd all be grateful if that particular relationship could run its course off-screen. What was cool about the two as Trent and Mike in "Swingers" has gotten terribly old. Now it's like watching a married couple bicker and quarrel -- but without the makeup sex.
7. He rarely works with directors who scare him. Vaughn had a better six or so minutes as a random roadside tavern friend and eventual boss of Emile Hirsch working with a demanding Sean Penn in 2007's "Into the Wild" than he's had in all the movie minutes since (that would be roughly 317) No actor improves without a challenge, and no one challenges Vaughn anymore. My guess, that's his call. So, man up, Vince, work with someone who puts the fear of God into you and let's see what you can do.
8. He doesn't care, doesn't cry. There were hints that Vaughn might be able to create a real relationship with a real woman in "The Break-Up" with Jennifer Aniston. But only hints. Mostly, he's the detached sort, a guy's guy even when there's lots of sex in the offing. It's time for Vaughn to have a go at actually falling deeply, madly, painfully in love on screen. Think of it as a character-building exercise that he could sorely use.