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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: DIGGING FOR FIRE Doesn't Dig Deep Enough

Is 'preserving monogamy' really effective stakes for a story? In Digging for Fire, the latest relationship dramedy from prolific writer/director Joe Swanberg, we're left with little else. Tim (Jake Johnson, Jurassic World) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married) are a married couple with a young son. Though neither is wealthy, yoga instructor Lee has a number of minor celebrities for friends, one of whom asks the couple to housesit while she shoots a movie. They move in to the deluxe home together, but quickly begin bickering. Eventually, Lee takes the kid to her parents' house for the weekend, leaving Tim to continue shirking his responsibilities in order to party with friends. Each is tempted to stray - Tim by fun-loving Max (Brie Larson, Short Term 12), a younger woman with whom he shares a playful sense of adventure, and Lee by Ben (Orlando Bloom, The Lord of the Rings), a sensitive, responsible man who shares her romanticism - and... that's mostly it. 

Oh, except for the dead body in the garden.

Swanberg's relationship films are known for their low-concept minimalism: A couple, a quarrel, and a lot of talking before things are resolved. When Tim finds a rusty gun and a human bone while gardening in the back yard, Swanberg introduces a potentially plotty element that could offer the film surprising momentum, a rarity in Swanberg's flicks. But then Lee forbids him from digging, asks him to just get the taxes done, and leaves to stay with her parents. And that's where the problems begin. Lee and Tim have chemistry in their opening scenes together, a prickly on-screen relationship that feels earned and earnest. It's a shame, then, that the film gives them maybe three scenes together before separating them for the vast bulk of the film. We know them exclusively as two very different people who are fighting all the time, which makes the film's central drama feel a bit inert. I don't really want these two to get back together. I don't understand why they got together in the first place. Fear? Loneliness? Have they just grown apart in the years since?

I may not be hot on the movie overall, but Digging for Fire does have some interesting things to say about relationships. The 'digging up buried skeletons' metaphor is too shallow and blunt to be really effective, but Swanberg, Johnson, and DeWitt do find genuine emotion in the realization both characters have that they haven't been individuals for a long time, that they've been a couple, and parents, but not their own people. It's the most nuanced argument the film finds, but it's also not really tied very well to this idea of monogamy and temptation, the core, well, drama of the film. Both characters talk about their longing for more individuality, but we never see them as a couple, and the seduction offered isn't 'coupling up with someone else' but 'a fling', which, again, doesn't really connect. There are fascinating ideas here, but they're tied to a too-trite story about a fun-loving guy and responsible gal who just can't see eye to eye.

Swanberg's films are typically at least worth seeing for the cast, and Digging for Fire is no exception. Johnson honed his charm in solid sitcom New Girl before using it to almost redeem a few of Jurassic World's scenes, and he has a wonderfully everyman wit - casual, playful, unpracticed. His friends are played by actors like stand-up comic Mike Birbiglia, the worrisome conscience of the group, and Sam Rockwell (Moon), his raging, untempered id. DeWitt isn't having as much fun - and doesn't get nearly as fleshed out - as she finds herself in a more soulful romance, but I actually found that she sold her character's slow seduction well, finding nuance in each scrap of story she had to fight for. Throw in a cast that includes Ron Livingston (Office Space), Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), and more, some in bit parts, others in more expanded roles, and you have a recipe for a veritable charm offensive. But does it mean anything, or is Swanberg just coasting on the charisma of an overqualified cast?

For me, it felt like coasting. Swanberg puts out a lot of movies (at least one a year, with a mind-boggling SIX features in 2011), and his filmography includes as many hits as misses, but Digging for Fire mostly strikes out. Its central metaphor is blunt, but the real reason it doesn't work is that there's no real reason to think that Tim and Lee belong together. The actors are great, and Swanberg is a rock solid director with a good sense of pacing and fairly engaging visual storytelling. You could do worse, as relationship dramas go, than this earnest little slice-of-white-middle-class-life dramedy, but there's so little to hang on to that it's already mostly slipping from my mind.

Digging for Fire is currently in limited release around the nation, and arrives at Atlanta's Midtown Art Theater on Friday, August 28th. Written by Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson and directed by Joe Swanberg, Digging for Fire stars Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, and Orlando Bloom.
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