MOVIE REVIEW: Digging for Fire



Independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg is approaching a love/hate status with this writer and website.  Lauded locally here in Chicago, he's a true-blue, grassroots filmmaker who works at the clip of one feature film a year and attracts his stable of Hollywood friends, most notably the surging A-lister Anna Kendrick.  As previously documented on this page, Swanberg has been one of the leaders of the independent "mumblecore" movement of filmmaking.  The genre primarily employs naturalistic everyday settings with improvisational dialogue and a loose story structure.  Such an approach has been found to be a double-edged sword of open-endedness.  Either it's fresh and interesting enough to keep you guessing or it's maddeningly lost and too unstructured for not really coming to a conclusion or making a point in the end.  

In his previous efforts reviewed by this website, 2013's "Drinking Buddies" and 2014's "Happy Christmas," the results have been hit (the former) and miss (the latter).  For his newest feature, "Digging for Fire," star Jake Johnson steps in as a co-writer, basing the story off of his personal experiences.  However, this film adds another miss to the list.  Checking the scoreboard, Swanberg is on strike two and is running out of chances to make that point that he thinks he's making.  This writer loves what he stands for, but hates the underwhelming results.

In "Digging for Fire," mumblecore darlings Johnson ("Jurassic World") and Rosemarie DeWitt ("Your Sister's Sister") play the married couple Tim and Lee.  The two share a son by the name of Jude (Swanberg's own son) and they have trekked from Chicago to Los Angeles for a family getaway.  Lee works as a yoga instructor to celebrities and her connections have the family house-sitting a borrowed, posh vacation home in the high-end hills.  During their arrival weekend, Tim and Lee both have it in their mind to get some alone time with local friends.  

Tim looks to stay in and drink Chicago beers (the Lagunitas bottles are popping) with his old buddies.  That crew includes the rabble-rouser Pop Pop (Sam Rockwell), the voice-of-reason friend Phil (Mike Birbiglia), and the chick-toting Billy T. (Chris Messina) with Alicia (Anna Kendrick) on one arm and Max (Brie Larson) on the other.  Drunken fun is not as easy to come by for Lee.  Saddled with the kid, she drops Jude off with her parents (Sam Elliot and Judith Light) and finds herself venting about marriage to them and her own fellow married friends Squiggy and Bob (Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston).

Both Tim and Lee encounter swerves that change their perspectives away from each other.  Before Lee leaves, Tim finds a rusty old revolver and a man's shoe in the natural hills on the property.  The wheels get turning in Tim's head that he has stumbled upon something drastic or dangerous.  He obsesses over it and gets the guys to help him dig and search for even more odd objects or clues.  Meanwhile, while enjoying a local bar out alone, Lee attracts the attention and advances of a dashing chef named Ben, played by Orlando Bloom, that gets her more than tempted to do more.

Each of those individual angles in "Digging for Fire" are seeds of potential in the ground for Swanberg to weave something more interesting than the episodic domestic life of "Happy Christmas" and the will-they/won't-they romance of "Drinking Buddies."  Sadly, neither narrative arch or divergent premise goes anywhere stimulating, especially Tim's more prominent half.  What remains is more signature mumblecore where the hang out conversations outnumber and trump storytelling depth or revelation.  The typical mumblecore talks go in two tangents: character-hued role-playing background experiences that happened off-screen or deep sidebars of meaningless filler.  Sure, the fun can be in the journey to get somewhere, but "Digging for Fire" doesn't get to that somewhere.  

As naturally loquacious as Jake Johnson is, as well as stand-up comedian Mike Birbiglia and the always engaging Sam Rockwell, there are only so many drunken games of hardy-har-har camaraderie that devolve to weed and cocaine that you can swallow before you scream "sober up and get going already."  You could put a webcam in a college dorm room and get equally striking conversation and maybe a little excitement of beer pong or card games.  Johnson and company just dig holes in the dirt.  That work has never been interesting.  Rosemarie DeWitt's constant underplaying of everything does her side of the story no favors in return.  Her angle with Bloom has more legitimate interest and, in the end, completion, but it's not enough for the whole film.  The rest of the ensemble, particularly the ladies of Kendrick, Lynskey, and Larson, are blips on the radar screen that depart too quickly and give little impact.

The finger-pointing here comes back to Joe Swanberg.  He gets credit for stepping out of Chicago to a broader locale in L.A.  Swanberg put down his usual handheld camera for a scope of more traditional cinematography from Ben Richardson ("Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "The Fault in Our Stars") and an actual soundtrack of songs to combine with a Dan Romer ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") musical score.  With that step up in effort and quality, the aesthetics have improved, but mumblecore route of storytelling is still the downfall for "Digging for Fire."  It never seems to know where it wants to go and can't ascend higher than the idea stage.  A good premise will only get you so far if you're only going to improvise to develop it.

LESSON #1: THE GOOD AND BAD INFLUENCES OF YOUR CLOSE FRIENDS-- Tim and Lee seek some quality time with their respective, yet separate, friend groups on this getaway.  Both groups act as equal parts good and bad influences for Tim and Lee.  For Tim, his boys let him cut loose, indulge in some recreational drugs, and they go along with his cockamamie quest for more uncovered mystery.  The bad is when he cuts too loose, indulges too far, and wastes his time on a wild goose chase.  For Lee, her parents and friends let her vent and relieve stress, but they also fill her head with more doubt than confidence with their wayward advice and insight.  Both friend groups mean well, but err with their influence.

LESSON #2: ENTERTAINING SELFISH TEMPTATIONS WHEN AWAY FROM YOUR SPOUSE OR SIGNIFICANT OTHER-- The bad influences and ideas that come out of Lesson #1 expand here to Lesson #2.  Tim and Lee veer too far with their tangents to the point of wrongful temptation and poor choices.  Tim obsesses over the buried clues and skips out on his responsibilities and, eventually, his friends.  He let something meaningless consume him at a cost.  Lee lets the doubt her friends planted influence her to entertain and consider the dreamy prospect of Ben and a hot one-night-stand or worse.  If both can shake those selfish urges and get them out of their system, they should return to each other OK.    

LESSON #3: ARE YOU THE TYPE OF PERSON TO PURSUE THE UNKNOWN OR DO YOU LEAVE IT ALONE?-- The final lesson is more of a divisive question.  Your answer says a great deal about you.  If you found what Tim found in that yard, would you pursue it further or ignore it?  Do you need to know or can you let it go?  Where is your limit for how far you will go with either mindset?  Does it eat at you or is it completely dismissible?  The route you choose says what type of person you are in one regard to encountering the unknown.  Neither answer is completely right or wrong, but it is telling.