Digging for Fire full movie review - Swanberg's first misstep with this new, assured style
When he kickstarted his career in the mid-2000's, Joe Swanberg immersed himself into the mumblecore scene by making decidedly smaller films, ones with shoestring budgets, shaky videography, and poor condenser microphones that picked up the sounds of static and excess noise.
These films were one step above your average home movie, and yet, they provided hefty thematic relevance and authentic characters and dialog audiences weren't accustomed to seeing (I referred to a lot of the films as examinations of "post-college listlessness," being that the characters in the films were young and disillusioned with their current state in life because of the inevitable 'now what?' question they're asking themselves). Swanberg's earliest works like Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends, and Uncle Kent work to affirm this idea by simply showing characters as they are, decorated as people and not to the manipulation of a cogent plot.
Recently, Swanberg has upped the ante on his films, getting bigger budgets, bigger actors, yet still trying to remain true to his improvisational, narrative roots. It's a tricky but ultimately fascinating dance, for he is essentially getting actors to play along to his formula, which has proved to be successful on a resonation level for many people. Drinking Buddies, starring Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, and Anna Kendrick, was the first film Swanberg made where he took on a more assured, confident persona, boasting a slickness unseen in his earlier works. This style only progressed with films like the grossly unappreciated 24 Exposures and last year's Happy Christmas.
Digging For Fire, however, is his first film in many years that doesn't have the same staying power as those former features. It predicates itself off a very big, simple metaphor and has the look and feel that Swanberg and company took a long vacation and decided in a "think fast" manner they could turn their stay into a film shoot. There's nothing wrong with either of those, but only if that feel doesn't seep through into the audience and, despite a very concise runtime and great screen presences, it's evident by about the fifty minute mark that Swanberg doesn't have the profound ideas necessary to anchor a very loose, low stakes project like this.
The film focuses around a young married couple named Tim and Lee (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) and their young son Jude (Jude Swanberg), who are staying at their friend's home, which is perched on a hill of a very woodsy environment, for a few days while she is away. Tim ventures out into the woods one day to find a pistol and what looks to be a human bone; he says they keep digging to potentially stumble on a great find, while she things that things should be left the way they are, for this isn't any of their business. With that, Lee takes Jude to their parents' house for the weekend, where she winds up meeting a guy named Ben (Orlando Bloom), who seems to pay more attention to her emotions than Tim has of recent, and Tim kicks back at home, smoking weed, drinking Lagunitas, and inviting his pals (Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell, and Mike Birbiglia) over to continue excavating the property and fooling around with other girls while he should be doing the taxes. This takes both parties on an unexpected existential journey that has them questioning whether or not they want to take both of their respective new vices further or simply leaving them to rest where they're currently at in the moment.
Because Swanberg practically spoonfeeds us the idea he wants us to extract from Digging for Fire, a lot of the fun from his earlier films (and even his newer, more assured pictures) is lost. I recall writing my reviews of films like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends with a refreshing and enlightening sense of progress, digging into certain scenes and trying to draw up my own thesis and own conclusions to figure out one of the many possible ways the film could be digested and analyzed. Digging for Fire doesn't have that kind of staying power; once you know the metaphor, it's hard to try and draw your own ideas in the film, especially when the characters are fairly empty.
Paradoxically, Digging for Fire isn't as substantial as it wants to be because it's simply trying to hard to be, and as a result, I can only look at the aesthetics and the characters as a means to recommend the film, though even those are rather subpar in comparison. The saving grace here is the humor, which is the most consistent in any Swanberg film of late. Swanberg is a fan of the wryest of wit; the wit that doesn't necessarily hit you in the present but a few seconds after the scene passes. Johnson and DeWitt have handled similar projects in the past (Johnson's being Drinking Buddies and DeWitt's being Your Sister's Sister) that relied on wry wit and awkward humor and both have a great sort of deadpan delivery when the script calls for it. Other actors, particularly Bloom and Rockwell, while fun to see in a low-budget Swanberg film, are admittedly out of their element, as their humor leans to the more brazen side than the cleverly nuanced realm Swanberg brings to the table.
Accentuating the positives here, Swanberg's young son is an absolute scene-stealer, the aesthetics are gorgeous, largely in part to the woodsy setting, and Jake Johnson continues to prove to be a potential long-term collaborator for Swanberg thanks to his laidback charm and muted hilarity. Swanberg also keeps things familiarly simple here in terms of directing, with the most complex shot being a quirky birds eye view shot when Tim, Lee, and Jude discover the gun and the bone early on in the film. From there on out, Digging for Fire is thoroughly pleasant but, give his films of the aughts, considerably underwhelming for Swanberg.