Let’s get it out of the way immediately: Joe Swanberg’s “Digging For Fire” has been dubbed a more indie-oriented, small-scale “Eyes Wide Shut.” And while the prolific filmmaker’s latest is also about the anxieties common to marriage and is dedicated to the memory of relationship-curious filmmaker Paul Mazursky (“An Unmarried Woman,” “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”), the funny/sad “Digging For Fire” finds Swanberg using different approaches to track some similar ideas.
Set in Southern California, married couple Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) are two East L.A.-side dwellers who decide to house-sit for one of Lee’s yoga clients. They use the empty modern house in the Hollywood hills as an excuse for a weekend retreat, bringing their three-year-old son (played by Jude Swanberg, stealing just as many scenes as he did in his father’s previous film “Happy Christmas”). As a yoga instructor, Lee is spiritually inclined, while Tim’s a laid back public school teacher.
Like most parents with toddlers, their lives are consumed with the cute banalities of potty talk, naps, new development milestones, and myriad activities centered around the child, to the detriment of their own relationship. But there’s also friction: the couple are arguing over pre-schools (private or public) and Tim’s procrastination about completing their taxes has resulted in an impasse. Further, Tim finds what appears to be a human bone and a rusty gun in the backyard and starts digging with forceful curiosity until Lee has to remind him that this is not their home and they should treat it as such.
Eventually, they decide to take a relationship break, and Lee goes to visit her parents and friends in another side of town and Tim stays to hang out with some local boys. And while the break is refreshing, it also further estranges Tim and Lee from one another, and what unfolds is a moody, reflective exploration of their own lives with potential romantic entanglements that test each individual’s resolve.
Written by Johnson and Swanberg, “Digging For Fire” is low-lit and pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on compromise, individuality, the loss of identity within a marriage, and the aftermath of disorientation that comes with having children and losing touch with your former life. “When does it become normal again?” a frustrated Lee asks her divorced parents (Sam Elliott, Judith Light). As she goes to reconnect with married friends (Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey), her evening out is sidetracked when they don’t have the energy to go out.
Back at the house, Tim’s curiosity is still getting the best of him, as friends and bad-influence stragglers like Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson and Chris Messina come over to party, and dig in the dirt for what could be some darker answers. Meanwhile, Tom Bower shows up as a weirdo neighbor telling Tim that there are cryptic forces in the woods behind the houses and that he should essentially “be careful what you wish for and be mindful of the threads you pull on.” The cast is huge, feeling like Swanberg called in every friend and favor in his L.A. rolodex (other small cameos include Jenny Slate, Timothy Simons, Jane Adams, Steve Berg and Lindsay Burdge from “A Teacher”).
“Digging For Fire” is a little moody and mysterious, but unlike the nightmarish aforementioned Kubrick marriage drama, it’s much more gentle and curious. It’s also a hazy movie, passing like a breeze on a balmy, boozy California evening, entrancing in the moment and then fleeting the next. Well shot by Ben Richardson, the contemplative atmosphere is perhaps most strongly rendered by composer Dan Romer (“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”). It’s a strange but memorable score and adds to the slightly surreal tone. Pillowy and synthy (unlike the folksy scores Romer is known for), it’s music that doesn’t always quite work in the moment, but something about the ambient swells being just left of center in any given scene certainly give the film an unusual flavor.
Swanberg’s film ends a little cryptically, but the way the metaphors in this film don’t quite spell themselves out are appropriate. “Digging For Fire” suggests while all relationships might have some secrets buried in the yard, some are better left unresolved. Swanberg’s latest might not be as great as “Drinking Buddies,” but even as a not fully-formed exploration of the individual costs of family, it’s still less slight than “Happy Christmas.” And while just as talky and low-key, its subtle, easy-going charms make it one of his most enjoyable films. [B]