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Digging for Fire (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Digging for Fire

Digging for Fire


Starring Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Tim Simons, Jane Adams, Megan Mercier and Jude Swanberg.

Screenplay by Jake Johnson and Joe Swanberg.

Directed by Joe Swanberg.

Distributed by The Orchard.  83 minutes.  Rated R.

I suppose this is as close as Joe Swanberg will ever get to a high-concept film.  Swanberg – a figurehead of the mumblecore school of filmmaking, a subtle, extremely natural, mostly improvised style of movie – makes Woody Allen feel hyperactive as a filmmaker.

Swanberg has a tendency to take actors, put them in a vague situation and then allow them to mostly ad lib their lines.  This worked best in the early years, when Swanberg worked with completely unknown actors, so that this naturalism felt more… well, natural.  His last few films Swanberg has become enough of a name that he is able to work with actually known actors.  That started a couple of years ago with Drinking Buddies, co-starring Jake Johnson (who also stars and co-wrote here) and Olivia Wilde and last year’s Happy Christmas, starring Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey (both of whom show up here in supporting roles).  And to be quite honest, most of the professional actors seem uncomfortable at improvising their dialogue.  It’s a very specialized skill, not every actor can do it well.

Digging For Fire is his biggest star vehicle yet, with a cast featuring Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate and Jane Adams.  All of them are trying to be just normal people, none of them have a script, just a very basic storyline to flesh out.

However, Digging For Fire sort of revolves around an actual potentially intriguing premise.  A long-time married couple (Johnson and DeWitt) is house sitting for a friend and while exploring the property, the husband comes upon a partially buried gun and human bone.  He begins obsessing about finding the body, but she feels that since they are guests they can’t very well dig up the entire landscape.  I say “sort of revolves around” not because that is not a dramatic development, but because the dead body tends to be something of a MacGuffin here, looking for the body ends up not being nearly as important to the storyline as the relationship problems the couple is experiencing as young parents.

The spark is going out of their relationship.  They have a kid that they love but their whole life revolves around the boy.  The husband is trying to hold on to his younger, wilder self, and the wife is feeling bitter that she always has to be the adult and make the difficult decisions.

And that’s about it.  He has a bunch of buddies over to get shitfaced and help him dig for bones.  She goes to visit her family.  Both meet attractive younger people (Orlando Bloom and Brie Larson) in their adventures, who tempt them to stray, but in the long run they stay true to their spouse.  (Though, honestly, in his case, the decision not to fool around was not all in his hands.)

Johnson and DeWitt are both terrific actors, and they know their roles well, so they mostly come out looking good, though as with everyone periodically their off-the-cuff lines land with a thud.

The way that the other actors fit in pretty much depends on their comfort level with improvising their lines.  Shockingly, Sam Rockwell, who would seem like a natural for playing a drunk buddy in something like this, turns out to be pretty disappointing at it.  For example, when discussing being a father with his best buddy (Johnson), a new dad, came up with this less than stimulating ad lib: “No sleep.  No sleep.  No sleep…  I couldn’t do it.  No sleep, man…  How do you sleep?  How do you sleep?…  I can’t do it.  I’ve got to sleep, man.  I can’t do that.  I’ve have to sleep, man.”  Yeah, the character is supposed to be snockered, but he must have had something more incisive to say than just repeating “no sleep, I have to sleep” over and over again.

Old school vets like Sam Elliott and Judith Light also feel a little lost here, not sure what exactly they are supposed to be doing.  There is something to be said for having a script to guide the actors.

Also, not to be mean, but Swanberg spends way too much film on his toddler son Jude, just like he did in Happy Christmas.  Sure, the kid is kind of cute, but in Christmas having like three minutes of him ripping paper and here having a couple of minutes of him counting blueberries is excessive.  Particularly in an 83 minute film.  Eventually the audience is like: enough of the kid already.  I know you are a proud dad, but come on, save that stuff for your family home movies.

In the end, Digging For Fire comes off feeling lightweight and tossed off, even despite some of the weighty themes explored.  Also, the final twist with the body feels horribly anti-climactic.  However, Digging For Fire has a shaggy-dog charm and affability that makes it worth your time.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: August 22, 2015.

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