Joe Swanberg’s Digging For Fire opens with a married couple (played by Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three-year-old walking into a big fancy house in the hills that will become the setting for the whole movie. “Is dis owa new house,” the child asks. (I’ll be as polite as I can about how much screen time this kid gets on account of he’s Swanberg’s real-life son, but there’s something to be said for not casting your relatives if you’re not prepared to “kill your darlings,” as it were.)
A few minutes of nothing follows (except to set up that they’re house-sitting for the wife’s wealthy yoga client) until Johnson’s character finds a human-looking bone and a rusted gun buried in the hill behind the house. Hooray, you think. This movie’s actually going somewhere!
There’s probably a mumblecore Chekhov’s Gun joke to be made here, where if someone finds a gun in the first act, you’ll want to shoot yourself with it by the third. But I’m actually impressed with Swanberg’s ability to sprinkle just enough breadcrumbs of possible foreshadowing through this forest of dull white ennui to keep me from walking back to my car. Nothing happens, but he’s great at spacing out hints that it might. (I do mean this as a compliment).
Swanberg (and possibly Jake Johnson, who gets co-writer credit here) has a Woody Allen-like belief in the meaningfulness of party conversation. Only instead of overwrought, wine-enhanced East Coast repartee, Swanberg favors underwrought musings over backyard IPAs. His West Coast new Bohemians are dull yet thoughtful, attractive yet unfulfilled. Digging For Fire is an easy target for haters, and there are times it does feel like an unintentional parody of LA faux-earnestness. Such as when, following the bone discovery, absolutely nothing happens for a full 17 minutes until some indie wondercore music swells in to introduce… Rosemarie DeWitt doing some laundry, everyone! Life’s so rad.
Then, just when I’d be about to shut it off for good, Digging for Fire would weave in just enough titillation to keep me going – a little sexual tension, a Sam Rockwell cameo, the discovery of another bone, Anna Kendrick in a bra, Brie Larson in no bra. There’s just the wisp of a theme, a subcutaneous idea that hasn’t quite come to a head – something about mortality, and relationships maintaining their ability to surprise, using buried bones as a metaphor – that keeps you from driving to Silverlake to murder someone with a shovel.
DeWitt’s character eventually leaves to visit her parents while Johnson’s stays behind at yoga base camp. He wants to dig for more bones, but Susie Fun Police wants him to leave her client’s yard alone and finish their taxes. Taxes, yo! We’re adults! These taxes, incidentally, are represented by a table full of loose receipts and legal pads like the black-and-white intro scene to a Turbo Tax infomercial (“Dere’s gotta be an easier way!”). Who does taxes this way? Also, Jake Johnson is a PE teacher and Rosemarie DeWitt is a yoga instructor. What are all those receipts for? Towels?
A nearly unwatchable scene follows in which DeWitt explains to her son that Daddy has to stay home because he has responsibilities. Mommy, what’s wesponsabiwities?
“Sometimes mommies want daddies to pitch in and help out, and do things, and those things are called ‘responsibilities.’ And if daddies don’t do them, mommy gets mad, and she goes ‘rawr!'”
And thus, we get to experience an infantilized version of every sh*tty sitcom plot of the last 50 years through the eyes of a three-year-old. By the way, isn’t this the kind of crap Judd Apatow gets crucified for?
In any case, this plot point is meant to be a breezy set up for DeWitt and Johnson’s weekend apart, where they have cathartic experiences, almost cheat on each other, and ponder monogamy and mortality until they realize how wonderful the world is (thanks to a random lady on the beach who has a telescope pointed at Saturn). This could’ve worked (and the Duplass Bros’ HBO show, Togetherness, is a great template for how), if the realism created by Swanberg’s low-stakes, improv-y style wasn’t in direct conflict with his infuriatingly lame setup.
The boy wants to search for mystery! The girl wants him to do taxes! That’s either the hackiest failed According to Jim plot or the most ham-fisted (and sexist) “put away childish things” metaphor ever. No amount of thoughtful discourse can redeem a setup more artificial than an I Love Lucy B-story. It poisons the whole thing.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.