Joe Swanberg makes films a little off the beaten path and that’s his charm. His latest effort, Digging For Fire, is a weird trip down the rabbit hole for Jake Johnson and Rosemary DeWitt, as they portay the seemingly normal, seemingly pedestrian married couple who unknowingly spend a few days way outside of their element. Together they are mostly fine, and deal with issues we all face. Apart, however, these banal individuals are faced with a number of what if? moments that has them looking, digging rather, for something they think is missing in their lives.
You never know what you’re going to get with an independent film as ambitious filmmakers with shoestring budgets play by their own rules. Moreover, the agenda is theirs, not the studio’s. The opening credits read like a who’s who of the reigning kings and queens of the indie film circle. Utilizing said talent, Digging For Fire is less of a movie and more of an experiment from co-writers Joe Swanberg and star Jake Johnson.
Boiled down to the essentials, and without giving things away, the film is about two people who realize that no matter what they’re going through, it’s better to weather the mid-life storm of raising children and filing taxes, together, than face any number of implausible situations and scenarios apart. Both DeWitt and Johnson engage in adventures independent of one another in a very short period of time. Each delves deeper into inappropriate and questionable conduct, and it’s somewhat forgivable because they have to get crazy in order to get centered again.
With Swanberg at the helm, all the actors, even the ones whose names elicit smiles in the opening credit (yet have infinitesimally small screen time), turn a film about a series of small, unremarkable incidents and exchanges, into a near cautionary tale about being responsible adults by showing what not to do. Although most of it is pretty obvious to begin with. You could claim that the actors are working off guidelines instead of a script as the entire production feels like it happened real time and there just so happened to be a camera to capture it all.
From Anna Kendrick, to Brie Larson, to Chris Messina, and Sam Rockwell, the number of mid-size screen stars is exciting. But everyone feels so one-dimensional and hollow that you could have got just about anyone to play the part. Intentionally so, as Swanberg likes his players to come across as authentic. Because of it, no one has their acting muscles stretched. The cast has a moderately fun time together yet this even keel story doesn’t come close to being remarkable. All that acting horse power and the film plays like a behind the scenes feature, or dry run of what could have been a more compelling story. Then again, the same can be said for Drinking Buddies, so there you go.
On that note, the handmade, shooting a movie with friends angle may have been the charm to Swanberg’s last film. But while the point of this story was an effortless exercise in watching normal people deal near life-changing affairs (metaphorical and literal), it all felt really honest. It’s what you would expect from an independent film, and par for the course, but hardly ground-breaking.
Of the many points raised, and Swanberg and Johnson should be credited with trying to tackle a good number of themes, the most important and noteworthy is that of happiness. Again it behooves the characters, and audience really, to look for it under their nose. Although, sometimes people have to go through weird situations in order to take notice of it. Johnson claims, in the film, that he’s not the same without his family and that echoes, conversely in a way, what Sam Elliott struggled with earlier in the film.
Marriage is about bringing the best of yourself to someone else to make something better for both of you. The question following any mutual pairing is whether happiness to the group is at the expense of your own, or, by you being happy (and selfish), can you remain who you were originally? There’s lots of little bits to take away from the film at various points in life and keep you thinking after the short run time has exhausted…but there are plenty better films to see which have the same message. Like Johnson and the hole which he fills with meaningless pursuits, it’s better to put the shovel down and forget the whole ordeal.