written by: Jake Johnson & Joe Swanberg
produced by: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg, Alicia Van Couvering
directed by: Joe Swanberg
runtime: 85 min
U.S. release date: January 26, 2015 (Sundance Film Festival); May 1, 2015 (Chicago Critics Film Festival)
"Look, if you don't want to dig, how about some hookers?"
Along with The Duplass Brothers and Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg is one of the founders of the mumblecore movement that began in the mid-aughts. Defined by a down and dirty, improvisational aesthetic, these films sprung out of the quarter-life crisis malaise that seized the generation stuck between Gen X and the Millennials. It has been interesting to watch how these filmmakers have dealt with the growth that's essential to survival in the film industry, and as Swanberg's own life has become one of married, parental domesticity, so too have his films begun to explore that territory. His latest film, Digging for Fire, plunges headlong into these issues and comes up mostly empty, preferring platitudes to actual insights, and covering so much well worn ground, it fails to bring anything new to the table.
Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the film with Swanberg—as much as anyone actually writes these films—star as Lee & Tim, a married couple housesitting in the California hills with their three year old son. During an early morning exploration of the grounds, Tim discovers a gun and a bone buried on the property, leading him to wonder what else might be buried there. The couple then go their separate ways for the weekend, with him staying behind at the house for a night of drunken debauchery with friends, and her heading to her parents' house with their tyke in tow.
It is during this section that the film begins to show its hand a bit too much, preferring a more freewheeling, narrative-lite feel, only resurrecting the digging plot in fits and starts. Swanberg himself said that his desire was to strip away as much of the plot as possible in order to see if the film can survive without it, and it does with varying degrees of success. The problem with all improvisational films is that the attempts to get the plot back on track almost always feel jarring. It is a double edged sword, however, as Tim's obvious desire to keep digging for more things eventually interferes with the film's newly established rhythm. This balancing act continues for most of the rest of the film, with the story and the meandering never quite finding a happy medium in which they can combine to make a cohesive film.
The film's most successful sections are by far the ones that are light on incident. Sam Rockwell, as always, is a force of nature in scenes like this, playing a hard living friend of Tim's who hasn't grown much past adolescence. Mike Birbiglia is also terrific in these scenes, as a more buttoned down member of the crew, but their ultimate insignificance to the plot ultimately makes their participation meaningless, because they hint at a much better movie that Swanberg was clearly not interested in making. Instead he trains his camera on a strange romantic interlude between Tim and a young woman played by the excellent Brie Larson. Their scenes really fail to land, despite the interesting dynamic that Swanberg is attempting to achieve, because they're drawn with such a broad brush that's far too burdened by hackneyed metaphors about marriage and death.
Rosemarie DeWitt's diversion into a flirtatious encounter at a bar with Orlando Bloom is far more interesting that these sections of the film, if only because point about love and relationships that Swanberg is trying to drive home aren't so overbearing. The sections with Johnson doing a "will they, won't they" tango with Larson are every bit as trivial as they feel, not only because they bring nothing new to the discussion about men and commitment, but because they're so riddled with the same rote, worn-out tropes that have been done better by similarly better filmmakers. That is essentially where Digging with Fire falters hardest, taking these same ridiculous, antiquated "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" observations about relationships that have been around for centuries, and presenting them as if they're earth-shattering discoveries. People don't communicated their needs effectively enough, we get it. Find something new to bring to the discussion, otherwise it's all fairly meaningless.
There are a number of positive things to say about the film, namely that it's by far the best cast Swanberg has ever assembled, with all of the aforementioned actors as well as Melanie Lynskey, Anna Kendrick, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, Veep's Tim Simons, and a sadly mustache-less Sam Elliott. The problem is that none of them hang around long enough for the smile of seeing them to disappear from your face. Swanberg's stable is growing in such a way that he can't possibly give all of them something interesting to do. He's always worked best as a director when he narrows his focus, and considering how prolific he is, I'm sure he'll narrow his focus again soon.
Digging for Fire is a decent outing, and Swanberg's choice to shoot on 35mm gives the film a far more cinematic air than the material deserves. Had it been either more disjointed or far less meandering, it might have been excellent, but it can't seem to find a rhythm in which it wants to settle. A cast this good is far too hard to write off wholesale, and the cinematography by Beasts of the Southern Wild's Ben Richardson make it look like a far better film than it actually is. Swanberg's prolificness is also, perhaps, his biggest achilles heel. Were he to take more time crafting the scripts or crafting the film in the editing room, the he might be able to show some demonstrable growth as a filmmaker. Visually, he is improving, but from a storytelling angle, he's stuck in the same trite, observational style that will define him until he finally outgrows it.