While staying at a friend’s house with his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and young son Jude, (Jude Swanberg) Tim (Jake Johnson) discovers a mysterious human bone and handgun buried in the backyard. That sounds like a set up for a murder mystery, however Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg’s “Digging for Fire” is a mid life crisis drama instead. More specifically it’s about adults in their late thirties to early forties having second thoughts about being adults, about growing up. Tim and Lee have been married for eleven years and the pressures of parenthood and adulthood are overwhelming them. They begin to wonder: “is this the life I really want to live?” Lee hasn’t had a night out by herself in years. Tim wants to believe he still has a leather jacket wearing wild streak in him. During a single weekend the two go on separate soul searching adventures.
If anything, “Digging for Fire” demonstrates Swanberg’s ability to craft a laidback atmosphere free of melodrama; the performances and dialogue are casual and naturalistic. The massive supporting cast (Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliott, Sam Rockwell, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Ron Livingston, Jenny Slate and Melanie Lynskey) is used so nonchalantly. Recognizable actors like Bloom or Elliot make brief appearances in such normal unassuming roles. If you’ve seen any of Swanberg’s other movies (“Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas”) you know that that’s his modus operandi. Also like his other movies, “Digging for Fire” was heavily improvised; the script consisted of a three-page outline. As a result it feels more like an informal hangout session than a movie-- as if Swanberg called up his actor buddies and asked them to riff about adulthood while he filmed them.
It’s mildly entertaining to watch this group of talented actors free style but “Digging For Fire” is ultimately a slight, undercooked effort. You get to the end and there isn’t much to discuss or mull over. Nothing very surprising happens over the course of the eighty-five minute running time; the resolution is underwhelming and obvious. Overall Swanberg is saying that getting married and having children drastically changes things; you have more responsibilities and less freedom. While this is a relatable message, it’s certainly nothing new and has been explored in greater depth in better movies. The bone and gun side plot becomes the only intriguing aspect of the movie. Tim continues to excavate the backyard, finding more bones and human accessories. At one point a creepy old neighbor tells him that some “bad stuff” happened at that house. But even this side plot never blossoms into anything very substantial and instead feels more like a quirky afterthought. It has nothing to do with the central relationship drama and could have been jettisoned from the movie without any change.
Thankfully, the impressive cast keeps “Digging For Fire” watchable. I wish Swanberg had given them more to do (some of the cast, like Lynskey and Livingston, have only one scene) but without their talent and easygoing charm, the movie would be even more forgettable.