Much as I admire Chicago-based filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Drinking Buddies) for his dedicated work ethic (he’s directed 16 features and acted in dozens of others over the past decade), his movies drive me up the wall. His loose, improvised dialogue sounds like the stuff of acting workshops, and his slim narratives—which tend to focus on millennials hanging out—often strike me as aimless. I can’t deny his sure hand with actors; everyone onscreen seems so comfortable one might easily take for granted that Swanberg directed them. Nor can I deny his sensitivity to the zeitgeist; his films contain so many references to what’s happening in the culture at the time that they double as time capsules. Still I question whether Swanberg actually has anything to say about his time and place; I never leave his portraits of white, liberal, middle-class millennials feeling I’ve learned anything.
Swanberg’s latest, Digging for Fire, isn’t devoid of observations; it’s just that those observations are banal. The film tells us that parenting can be tough, that it’s normal for married people to long for independence, and that growing up means putting others’ interests before your own—in other words, nothing you can’t find in a self-help book or family sitcom. There are scenes of drug use and intimations of murder, yet Swanberg manages to make these things seem banal too. Indeed little actually happens in Fire, because Swanberg frequently punctuates the action with meandering conversations that stop the film dead.
Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a happily married couple with a three-year-old son, Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director’s child). Tim teaches gym at a public high school in Los Angeles; Lee gives private yoga lessons to rich people. The film opens with them parking their family car at a fancy Malibu home they’ve been invited to house-sit, while, on the soundtrack, they express several variations on “This will be fun, won’t it?” During their first afternoon at the place, Tim explores the grounds and finds a rusty old revolver and a long, thin bone. He shows these to Lee, who urges him to mind his own business. He calls the police anyway, but they tell him they’re too busy to help. Putting the matter aside, Tim and Lee spend the evening politely discussing when he’ll do the taxes and whether they should allow Lee’s rich mother to send Jude to an expensive private preschool.
After Lee and Jude take off for the weekend to visit her mom, Digging for Fire turns into a mildly naughty episode of According to Jim. Tim smokes pot, goofs off around the house, and throws an impromptu party for his male friends, all mild-mannered guys except for the hard-partying Ray (Sam Rockwell). One of the guys suggests poking around the area where Tim found the gun and bone, and next thing they know, they’ve dug a pit the size of a grave. Bored with this endeavor, Ray calls up a friend, Tango (Chris Messina), who promises to bring over women and cocaine. Tango arrives with Alicia (Anna Kendrick) and Max (Brie Larson), the latter of whom takes interest in the dig. The situation has all the makings of an evening turned sinister, yet Swanberg won’t go there. Some of the men do coke, and Tango goes skinny-dipping in the pool, but after a while Tim, feeling he’s had enough, makes a frozen pizza and goes to bed.
The next night Lee, leaving the child with her mother, goes to a bar and enjoys a night-long flirtation with a stranger (Orlando Bloom), from which Swanberg frequently cuts back to Tim digging in their yard. At one point Max returns to retrieve a purse she left the night before, and she stays to help Tim in his efforts. When night falls, they decide to have dinner together. Afterward they get stoned and play with the objects they’ve dug up, but the pleasant mood is killed when Ray returns unexpectedly and asks Tim if he’s planning to seduce Max. The young woman leaves, and the two men get into a fight. After kicking Ray out, Tim returns to the pit, only to stop digging when he discovers a wedding band on the hand of a human skeleton. He buries everything he’s uncovered and returns to the house to find Lee getting in. They take a shower together, pack their things, and leave.
The film’s conclusion represents a return to normalcy, with Tim and Lee rejecting morbid curiosity and sexual temptation in favor of the comfortable lives they know. This narrative pattern resembles that of Eric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales,” a series of dramas in which characters encounter sexual temptation only to reject it. Rohmer’s movies were also full of gab, and they got flak in some circles for being uneventful. Yet his dialogue is some of the most refined and philosophical in cinema—he made conversations into events. By contrast Digging for Fire gives us lines like, “I read this study—or my husband told me about this study, because we talk about this stuff a lot—that they did for Harvard or something, where they said that people with money actually are happier, like, marginally happier.” The vague dialogue fits all too well with Swanberg’s characterizations. Tim and Lee come across as likable people, yet the film doesn’t reveal enough about them to make their emotional struggles seem all that compelling. What emerges most strongly is their complacency, which Digging for Fire—with its nonjudgmental approach—would seem to endorse. v