By Elias Savada.
Joe Swanberg apparently hasn’t stopped mumbling yet.
Known for his mumblecore films — micro-budget affairs shot on video with lots of actor improvisation — Swanberg has barely inched toward making more formal movies, starting with the craft beer romance Drinking Buddies a few years back. Growing more adventurous in the mainstream, yet still centered in the indie movie world, he made Happy Christmas in 2014 for $70,000. That feature, shot on 16mm film, premiered at Sundance, as did his new feature, Digging for Fire, which he shot on 35mm Kodak stock. His latest work has an incredibly large cast, including many actors from his previous films: Jake Johnson (starring and co-scripting with Swanberg), Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Megan Mercier. New to working with the director-writer are Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Steve Berg, Jenny Slate, Judith Light, and Sam Elliott.
Sadly, it also has little plot and but a smidgeon of a mystery premise. But it does examine such usual Swanberg themes of parenting, marriage, temptation, and life’s occasional drudgery.
While Swanberg, a festival favorite, still favors his cast improvising their lines, his relaxed approach is slightly more assured, but his story is thin (nothing unusual there). Tim (Johnson) and yoga instructor Lee (DeWitt) take up temporary residence in the Los Angeles hillside retreat (tennis court, pool, lovely) of one of her clients (“shooting a movie in Budapest”) with their 3-year-old son (played by Swanberg’s son, Jude). When Tim finds a rusty old gun and large bone amid some loose dirt, his, her (and our) interest in somewhat piqued. While it’s not yet time to call TMZ, and the police show no interest, the couple split into two storylines for the rest of the movie, on “separate adventures over the course of a weekend” per the film’s pr-written synopsis. Lee and child head off to visit Granny (Light) and her second husband or boyfriend (Elliott), while Tim stays behind to do the family taxes.
Tim damns that 1040 and the myriad receipts piled on the kitchen table. He lights up a joint and gets to the real work at hand, playing childish games with his guy friends, firing up the barbeque, and drinking Firestone Walker, Lagunitas, Modern Times, and Golden Road beers. Thankfully Swanberg and Johnson know their craft beers. But the man boys slurp through them. They should be savored, and the dialogue (hit and miss) needs more structure to keep the audience’s interest. My interest wavered, hence the desire to study the beer bottle labels. Numerous brews later, the digging in the title (named after a 1990 Pixies tune) begins.
As numerous marijuana joints and cocaine lines are consumed, Swanberg’s film approaches orgy and full frontal territory with the arrival of Alicia (Kendrick) and Max (Larson), but generally steers toward the archeological dig. Meanwhile on the other side of town, Lee visits her mom, steals some cash, goes shopping, visits friends, chats with some Uber drivers, and strikes up more than a conversation with a magnanimous guy at a bar (Bloom).
The marriage is loosely tested, with Swanberg cross cutting equally between each narrative, affording the viewer different shades of how the family unit might fare. Not much tension goes on here (hey, it’s a Swanberg film) until two-thirds through, when some new pairings take on a weird, coincidental aspect. Roles, for the most part, are interchangeable within the large ensemble.
Swanberg begs you to sit back, relax, and enjoy his brisk, 83-minute exercise. Break out a beer. Smoke a joint. Snort some cocaine. Relax. As for me, I’m going out in the backyard to do some digging.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.