Digging for Fire Dir. Joe Swanberg

[The Orchard; 2015]

Styles: improvisational romantic comedy
Others: Before Midnight, The Ice Storm

When Tim (Jake Johnson, also co-writer) discovers a rusty gun and what must be a human bone in the backyard, what must it mean? Is it a sign of a waning libido in need of verification? A loss of self as a result of parenthood? Swanberg doesn’t seem occupied with what the significance of these two objects so much as he’s distracted by the act this discovery inspires. Hint: it’s in the title, kinda. His new improvisational, ambling ensemble piece has ambitions of being a sprawling Altman-esque LA mini-epic but can only hack being an abridged version of one. Where Swanberg errs is the symbolism, which is shallow (yet endearingly earnest) to the point of utter predictability, detracting from some terrific lead performances.

A film that revisits the narrative of a vacation being not really a vacation, Digging For Fire centers on scenes from a marriage while apart. Things don’t seem so great from the get-go: upon entering the house belonging to a client of Lee’s (Rosemarie DeWitt), which they’ll be sitting for a couple weeks, with their son Jude (Swanberg’s own son), they half-heartedly embrace, telling each other it’ll be fun. The second time they say it feels more obligatory and insincere. It’s like a Force Majeure with less avalanches (and more dirt, I guess). Even on this vacation, they can’t escape what’s really eating at them.

Which is what, exactly? It’s a matter of being an adult, in the end. Lee continues to work as a yoga teacher and a hands-on parent, while Tim puts off shuffling the endless papers and receipts so that he can finish the goddamn taxes. She smokes pot and reads a book called Passionate Marriage, which will show up sporadically throughout, because this movie cannot let a single scene go by without reminding it’s audience how fucking difficult it is to be a married adult. Even at 83 minutes, it takes a long time to make its points. The argument here pertains not to the usefulness of said points, but more the originality.

But I digress. Adulthood. Tim can’t seem to get past the idea of digging for whatever else might be in the backyard. The police won’t help, and Lee demands he let it go. He must take up on this search on his own (you see where they’re going with this?). Eventually, Lee decides to board Jude with her mom and dad (Judith Light and Sam Elliott, who remain nameless) and take a weekend to herself. A vacation from a vacation, so that Tim can do what he’s been asked. Thus begins a test of loyalty for them both. Tim invites his buddies for shoveling, beer, and coke. The party includes the kind of responsible Tim needs to be but avoids (like Mike Birbiglia, who notices a problem) or the kind of man-child he envies but learns to pity (Sam Rockwell, staggeringly underused). There are more partygoers, but not enough attention is paid to them. Swanberg clearly enjoys using repeat offenders, but in a story that deserves more complex telling, they’re useless.

The amateur archaeology yields some results, like another bone, a license plate, and a shoe (which Tim will unsuccessfully fit his foot in). Perhaps inconclusive (but, gahhhh, what does it all mean?), but the search inspires some companionship in the form of Brie Larson, another temptation for Tim to dig himself lower. Meanwhile, Lee’s having less luck getting her ideal weekend trip. Her rich bickering friends (Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynesky) unable to tear away from their own responsibilities (because tough marriage). She buys an expensive leather jacket to dial into her youth and courts bun-haired Orlando Bloom, and as that goes sour, so does Tim’s attempt at a fling. Given Swanberg’s sincere, normal personality (as well as the autobiographical nature of his films), the idea of a pessimistic ending seems unlikely. That’s no error in terms of Swanberg’s vision, but it allows little risk.

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