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Director Joe Swanberg has been vocal about his hatred for the term “mumblecore,” which describes the naturalistic indie aesthetic that he and the Duplass brothers are credited with having invented. His aversion is understandable; “mumblecore” makes it sound like his characters are inarticulate doofuses, when in fact his improvisatory style often lends itself to verbosity.
The term feels sadly appropriate, however, when applied to his latest film, Digging for Fire. It’s a shallow, meandering mess that mumbles its way through several genres without ever arriving at an idea worth talking about.
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Jake Johnson (who co-wrote the film with Swanberg) and Rosemarie DeWitt play Tim and Lee, a married couple juggling a toddler and a bad case of middle-class ennui. Their problems are universal, but Swanberg wisely gives them specificity. They fight about money, but it’s largely because Lee spends her days as a yoga instructor around wealthy clients whose luxurious lifestyles have given her unrealistic expectations. Tim, meanwhile, is sophomoric and resentful of his new responsibilities as a father, probably because he is a high school gym teacher who spends his days goofing around with teenagers. He resents the kid for disrupting his life, and Lee begrudges his immaturity. It’s an old story.
But Swanberg tries a neat trick here, burying his clichéd setup behind enticing genre elements. The opening scenes hint at some sort of hipster noir mystery. After Tim finds a gun and a bone buried in the backyard, he commences a massive dig to uncover the dead body he’s sure exists there. Lee uses this insanity to justify a girls’ weekend, while Tim invites his guy friends over to party and dig (one character calls it “the weirdest Easter egg hunt”).
Actually, it’s not weird enough. The noir settles into a loose hangout movie, and Swanberg packs a murderer’s row of indie Hollywood’s most likeable stars into the frame. It’s diverting enough (Hey, there’s Sam Rockwell in a beard! Hey, there’s Mike Birbiglia as Tim’s teacher friend! Hey, there’s Anna Kendrick, showing up for five minutes to take her shirt off!), but a hangout movie requires characters we actually want to spend time with, and Digging for Fire offers only a long parade of narcissistic assholes; Tim, an ostensibly sympathetic protagonist, might even be the most irritating because he fancies himself such a good guy but behaves so shamelessly. He toys with the idea of cheating on his wife— just because he can —with a blonde bimbo (Brie Larson) he barely knows. Hanging out with him is no treat.
Meanwhile, Lee’s storyline is the stuff of bad Hollywood rom-coms. Her journey into the dark night of the soul consists mainly of a serious flirtation with a dreamy restaurant owner (Orlando Bloom), who protects her from an aggressive drunk. The two bond over a private meal he cooks in his restaurant’s kitchen, then go strolling on the beach. Besides being clichéd, it harbors a regressive view of femininity, as if every woman’s fantasy is to be protected by a strong man.
As such, Digging for Fire reveals itself as a modern-day equivalent of those early Hollywood morality tales in which a doting husband is tempted by a femme fatale, only to restore social order by returning to his wife in the final reel. Its politics, however, could be forgiven if it felt like the filmmakers really believed them. But this indie film’s reliance on tired platitudes and clichés as ancient as Hollywood itself aren’t by design. Rather—a bit like its lead character—it’s a case of a filmmaker digging for truth and failing to crack the surface.
Digging for Fire opens Aug. 28 at E Street Cinema.