Parenthood has been a double-edged sword for indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg. On one hand, he and his wife have produced Jude Swanberg, who at the age of 2 was one of the minor delights of his dad’s “Happy Christmas” (2014) and who at 3 walks away with his handful of scenes in the new “Digging for Fire.” There are cute movie toddlers and there are those who seem wholly present and accounted for, unwrapping each day as if it were a new mystery. It probably won’t last long, but, for now, Jude’s a natural.
But marriage and babies and the attendant middle-class mishegoss have also given Swanberg new anxieties to make movies about. In “Digging for Fire,” we find two of his signal Left Coast hipsters quietly freaking out as they confront compromise, the loss of individual freedom, the terror of turning into one’s parents, and that old rascal Death. The movie’s a comedy. And while it has its charms, Swanberg is tilling soil here that has been churned since humanity began, and he doesn’t come up with very much that’s new.
That’s his metaphor, not mine. Tim (Swanberg regular and “The New Girl” costar Jake Johnson) and his wife, Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), settle in for a two-week house-sitting stay at the lavish home of one of Lee’s yoga clients. They’re happy to get a break from their tatty duplex and marital tensions, but Tim soon discovers an ancient gun and a fragment of bone half-buried in the hillside and, possessed by the idea of a hidden body, starts digging. And digging. When Lee takes their young son to her parents’ house for the weekend, both spouses find themselves reverting to questionable behavior while questioning whether they’re happy. Or whether they should even be asking themselves if they’re happy.
Swanberg has made 16 low-budget features in 10 years, banging them out with assurance, a caustic ear for the way people talk past each other, and not much in the way of visual style — a formalist he’s not. He has also amassed a sizable address book, and “Digging for Fire” has a supporting cast that includes Sam Rockwell as Tim’s bad boy best friend, Boston-bred comic Mike Birbiglia as the nerdy angel on Tim’s shoulder, Sam Elliott and Judith Light as Lee’s parents, Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston as her sister and brother-in-law — even more beaten down by marriage than Tim and Lee — and Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson as party girls to remind Tim of what he’s missing. Larson, invaluable as ever, plays a common-sense free spirit who helps Tim unearth whatever is out there under the hill.
For all the talk of unsolved murders, that dirt remains largely symbolic and the doubts the characters dig up are as unsurprising as they are universal. How do you become part of a couple while remaining yourself? Is marriage a merging of souls or a trap? Or, as Lee’s Wise Old Dad says, “Being in love — what is that? Getting what you want? Or giving someone what they want?”
Swanberg’s reliance on improvised dialogue can stall scenes, but he’s just as capable of writing a bright, bitter line like Lee’s explanation to her son, “Sometimes mommies want daddies to pitch in and help, and those are called responsibilities.” When the movie bothers to turn its attentions from Tim, DeWitt creates a solid little portrait of a new mother scared she’s becoming just another old mom — “the bad guy,” the noodge, the nag. And the movie does reward Lee with a few scenes, sensuous with possibilities, involving a restaurant owner played by a wryly knowing Orlando Bloom.
In general, though, Swanberg’s characters act as mouthpieces for their (and our) common emotions rather than embodying them in behavior, or behavior that makes dramatic sense — the whole digging-up-the-backyard metaphor never quite clicks into place. The bodies remain buried in “Digging for Fire,” and the mountain remains a molehill.