There’s something pleasurable about watching the privileged heterosexual couple writhing in ennui to the point of near self-destruction, only to come around stronger and discover the marvels of monogamy all over again. Swinging with the Finkels works through this narrative of hetero-normative renewal in a very literal way as Ellie (Mandy Moore) and Alvin Finkel (Martin Freeman) go through their list of “white people’s problems” expecting the art of couples-swapping to bring their marriage back to life.
Marriage, in the film, is the necessary evil we all must figure out how to endure in order to be happy or, at least, feel normal. “Just two very damaged individuals who quietly beat the shit out of each other over the years,” says Alvin’s best friend (Jonathan Silverman). The problems are the familiar ones (no sex, no intimacy), and the attempted solutions are just as hackneyed (sexy lingerie, fireman outfit). When Ellie finally tries something out of the ordinary, like masturbation, she gets caught in the act by her in-laws.
With televisual subtlety, Swinging with the Finkels works its way through the clichés of the genre so it can arrive at the bit when Ellie finally finds out, at age 30, what “swinging” actually means. Here the slew of clichés continue: French people love baguettes, smelly cheese, extramarital affairs, and add little expressions in French between every sentence they say in English; gays are fuchsia-wearing lisp-affected queens; and anything beyond missionary position is shockingly foreign to the properly married straight couple.
Despite its witty intertitles dotting the predictable story arc, the film mostly goes through the motions drawing from rather dated assumptions about the sexual zeitgeist (people have “affairs”). The figure of the idiotic heterosexual couple completely unexposed to masturbation, digital sexual economies (“Why don’t we place an ad on a website or something?”), who can barely bring themselves to whisper the word “penis,” who have never taken an STD test (until they meet nurse “Urethra Franklin”), whose most transgressive act is cutting their toenails on the couch, may work as cheap sitcom gag material. But in Swinging with the Finkels, Ellie and Alvin feel like obsolete caricatures of a world in which straight people could live in their hermetically sealed ivory towers completely unexposed to the projected perversions of others.