Digging For Fire introduces us to Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), a married couple with a cute three-year old boy and a possibly waning marriage. The family temporarily resides in a home up in the Hills – but little do they know what’s in store for them. Or for us, the audience, in Joe Swanberg’s new mostly improv drama about married life and the search for meaning.
Since becoming a mother, Lee hasn’t had much time for herself, what with the responsibility of taking care of the baby. To buy herself a little sanity, she drops the kid off at her mother’s home so she can live a little. Free to roam, she visits friends, eventually meeting bartender/restaurant owner Ben (Orlando Bloom), a man who gives her plenty to think about, challenging both her marriage and sense of self in the process.
Back at home, meanwhile, Tim has been tasked with finishing up their taxes, but the Hills life proves too distracting. While digging out back he discovers what appears to be a human bone and a rusty revolver; his interest is most definitely piqued. He invites over some company, the likes of Phil (Mike Birbiglia), the party animal Ray (Sam Rockwell), later getting Alicia (Anna Kendrick) and Max (Brie Larson) to join the fun.
Tim obsessively continues to dig, completely forgetting about the task for the weekend. Max is just as curious and comes over the following day after the shindig and quickly joins in his new obsession. It soon becomes clear that Tim feels livelier around the younger Max, keeping her around way past what’s necessary – or appropriate.
The rest of the film is a lot of digging – digging to nowhere – almost as if the improv gimmick ran its course and there was little trajectory for the film to go. It all feels incomplete and lacking real closure or point.
According to a recent interview with Jake Johnson, who shares a co-writing credit with director Joe Swanberg, he claims that some of the incidents here actually happened, pointing out that the conversation with the LAPD in the film is accurate and his obsession with digging after he discovered the bone, gun, license plate, etc, are all pretty spot-on. I’m sure the actual incident was much more entertaining than the meandering film I watched.
That it’s mostly improv isn’t surprising, given Swanberg’s propensity for it (2013’s Drinking Buddies). It’s a fun technique, sure, but one that doesn’t translate when you’re aiming for the dramatic. You’d think, given the setup, that this would be a film that makes a grand case towards existentialism or some other kind of school of philosophical thought, but no; it’s practically voiceless.
I actually found myself enjoying the first few moments; the film was funny, the characters worked, all seemed right in the world. Alas, this wasn’t to last, as about twenty minutes in I kept glancing at my watch, wondering just where the heck this was all going. I kept waiting for things to happen or make sense, but neither did. And I kept waiting.
It doesn’t help that there’s not enough backstory or exposition to care about, aside from Sam Rockwell, who’s always fun to watch. He always seems to be having much more fun than everyone around him, and his energy is plentiful – this film is no exception. Everyone else is dull, one-dimensional, with nary any real motivation beyond the now.
As much as I thought about the film I could not find what the point of the plot was or what it’s overall goal could possibly be. This was a poorly thought out idea sprinkled with some big topics like marriage and infidelity. The characters don’t seem to care and why should I or anyone watching this film. The film is missing intellect in the most basic sense, and not for lack of trying.
While Digging for Fire attempts to reach for the stars with philosophical pondering and thoughts on marriage, but comes up empty as the results are almost completely futile and far-fetched. What might have been an otherwise interesting diversion instead became a plotless, meandering, ambiguously bad movie from director Joe Swanberg, one that’s largely improvised yet still manages to lack that certain spark of genius that even low-level improv usually exhibits. No one knows what’s going in this short 85 minute film and perhaps that’s the film’s saving grace, its truncated running time.