A Coming of Age film unlike many others in its category
A Complete Story
Swingers is that rare treasure that perfectly encapsulates a place in time. For those of us who reached peak dating in 1996, Jon Favreau's tale of "Vegas, baby. Vegas!!" is less film than a documentary. The characters and situations—and humor—perfectly document 20-somethings trying to establish their place and relationships in life.
They also tell a wonderfully complete story.
The Search for a Storyform
The storyform for Swingers eluded me for decades. Having been introduced to the Dramatica theory of story around the same time as the initial release, I always wanted to understand the narrative structure and dynamics of the film. Intuitively, I knew the film worked. But, I couldn't piece it all together when it came to figuring out the specific narrative dynamics and Storypoints.
The Coming-of-Age Story
Contrary to popular opinion, Swingers is not a Coming-of-Age film—not in the structural sense of where one typically finds movies in this genre. Instead, Swingers feels demonstrably different because the alignment of its thematic areas of conflict deviates from the norm.
Mike Peters (Jon Favreau) is obsessed with his ex-girlfriend. He can't let her go. And her refusal to speak to him for six months weighs so heavily on his shoulders that it affects everything he does—and everything everyone around him does to try and help him move beyond her.
Mike needs to grow by stopping this bad behavior—not by starting some new and better behavior.
This growth of character stands in sharp contrast to most Coming-of-Age stories. In films like Edge of Seventeen and Brooklyn, the Main Character suffers because they're not stepping up—they're not growing into their potential. That's what typically defines the Coming-of-Age genre.
Swingers is more like Lady Bird—where the Main Character ends up being her own worst enemy. Mike self-sabotages at every turn, unable to even see the door that leads to a better place, let alone open it. He can only grow by stopping being himself.
The Main Character Growth
In the Dramatica theory of story, this growth of character dynamic is called the Main Character Growth. The question asked by this Storypoint? Does the Main Character grow by Stopping something or by Starting something?
At first, this question appears to be a matter of perspective: six or half-dozen of the other. Yet, the answer sets the stage for the individual Throughlines that hold the structural meaning of the story. In other words, the Main Character Growth helps define the Theme of the story.
The Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines
Mike's obsession is his downfall. The Area of Conflict for his Throughline rests squarely in the Mind Domain. Growing out of this fixed mindset and into a place where he feels comfortable and at home in his surroundings describes his character growth.
The story of single, unemployed actors finding their way through Hollywood—of which Mike fulfills an important role—is one of dysfunction and gross rationalizations. Seeking employment at Starbucks is OK as you await West Coast representation. Playing Goofy at a kid's party is at least working for Disney.
The Psychology Domain is the Area of Conflict for everyone in Swingers.
Favreau's focus of Concern in both Throughlines ties the objective and subjective together. Objectively, conflict centers around Mike growing up and moving on. Subjectively, Mike can't help but feel heartache and loss as he wrestles with the longing for his ex. This overlap of thematic concerns within the narrative sets an Objective Story Concern of Becoming (the unemployed actor growing up) with a Main Character Concern of Subconscious (Mike feeling loss).
The Influence Character and Relationship Story Throughlines
The Four Throughlines of Swingers
Both Rob (Ron Livingston) and Trent (Vince Vaughn) appear to have "made it" in this Universe. As minor and inconsequential as it objectively may be, their success in Hollywood is still light years beyond anything Mike has accomplished. Rob and Trent's situation—particularly Trent's status as a ladies' man—influence and challenge Mike to grow beyond himself.
They offer an alternative approach to solving problems that challenge Mike because of their place in the Universe.
The relationship between Mike and his friends is where the fun lies in Swingers: the late-night trips to Vegas, the rounds of Chica golf, the party and bar-hopping, the hitting on girls, and even the dancing at the Brown Derby. These activities cover the fourth and final Area of Conflict: Physics.
Thematic Issues and Synchronicity
As we dig deeper into the film, we find instances of Themes that resonate and harmonize with each other.
Trent's openness challenges Mike's reluctance to seek closure (Influence Character Issue of Openness). The out-of-work actors' rationalizations of working in Hollywood balance out the boys' approaches towards seeking out and dating women (Objective Story Issue of Rationalization and Relationship Story Issue of Approach).
When a narrative works, it works across the entire spectrum of conflict.
This area is where the Dramatica theory of story starts to become scary-prescient and where one begins to question the very fabric of space and time.
In Dramatica, a Main Character Issue of Closure demands an Influence Character Issue of Openness for balance. Likewise, an Overall Story Issue of Rationalization requires a Relationship Story Issue of Approach.
It sounds an awful lot like Swingers, doesn't it?
The film came out in 1996, only two years after the initial release of the theory and when the Internet was in its infancy. So chances are Favreau knew nothing of Dramatica—yet the storyform and the script maintain a surprising amount of synchronicity. It's almost as if he used Dramatica to write Swingers, or Dramatica used Swingers to develop its concepts.
Neither of those things happened in reality.
A writer's "intuition" is natural, as it recognizes the psychological processes that go on in within our minds as we seek to solve problems.
Just like Dramatica.
The Core of Character
At the base of each Throughline rests Motivation. This inflection point is where we find evidence of Character within the Storyform and begin to understand the true nature of their justifications.
Both the Main Character and Overall Story Throughlines of Swingers share the common Motivations of Reconsider. Mike keeps thinking Michelle will change her mind and get back with him (an indication of a Main Character Motivation of Reconsider). The under-employed actors keep switching things up because "this party's dead anyways" (evidence of an Objective Story Group Motivation of Reconsider). The group wants no attachment—the individual is attachment.
And here we see the reason for our attraction to story: a complete story offers us the chance to be both within and without conflict. Stories present to us an experience we can't find in our day-to-day lives.
No matter how familiar they seem to be to us.
A Complete and Lasting Story
Swingers is infinitely watchable—not because it's a perfect time capsule for the mid-90s, but rather because the film tells a complete and fulfilling story. By offering us a chance to see the effects of constantly reconsidering—or refusing to reconsider—in a humorous and relatable way, we're reminded of the power of simply saying "Yes" or "No" to the change we seek in our own lives.
Stories are operating manuals for life—and I, for one, am grateful for the helpful instructions presented in Jon Favreau's Swingers.