Digging for Fire comes at you with the shaggy, shambolic quasi-charm of previous movies from Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas). It’s very loose-limbed; a partly improvised look at the lives of a bunch of 30-somethings living the SoCal way. What at first seems to be a shapeless structure slowly takes on form. The movie winds up as a sweet, unsentimental meditation on the daily work of maintaining a marriage. Getting there, though, requires patience and a high tolerance level for narrative meandering.
Tim (Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Swanberg) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a schoolteacher and yoga-instructor wife with a 3-year-old boy (Swanberg’s own son, Jude). When one of Lee’s film-industry clients leaves for a multiple-month shoot overseas, she offers them her sprawling, secluded house in the Los Angeles hills — complete with pool, tennis court and a socioeconomic graciousness far above Tim and Lee’s own living arrangements. It’s a borrowed house, and in some ways a borrowed life.
They’re struggling financially. While Lee’s parents offer to pay for private preschool for Jude, Tim resists; after all, he teaches in the public system himself. Meanwhile, the dining table in their temporary home is covered with receipts and documents that Tim has to consult to file their taxes. It’s a testy time for the couple. They need a weekend apart.
Lee heads with toddler Jude to visit her folks (Judith Light, Sam Elliott) and plans to have a wild ladies’ night out with an old pal (Melanie Lynskey). Meanwhile, Tim isn’t thinking much about taxes. He’s discovered an old gun and a bone, possibly human, in the undergrowth on the borrowed home’s grounds.
He invites some pals (comedian Mike Birbiglia, veteran screen rogue Sam Rockwell) over to drink beer — and help him dig around in search of more evidence of foul play. Another friend, Tango (Chris Messina) turns up with cocaine and two girls, Max (Brie Larson) and Alicia (Anna Kendrick). Much substance abuse and further late-night digging ensue. (The digging business is an obvious but sort-of-effective metaphor for the things you choose, as a couple, to dig up, and what things you realize you should let rest in peace.)
Elsewhere in L.A., Lee’s girls’ night out fizzles out. She winds up having an evening to herself, during which she encounters a couple of people (Orlando Bloom, then Jane Adams) that give a magic, short-story feel to the sequence. As you’ve noticed, there’s quite a cast here, some of them turning up for barely-there scenes. (Ron Livingston, Jenny Slate and Veep’s Timothy Simons also appear.) You can understand why actors want to be in a Swanberg movie. The characters feel real, quirky sometimes, yet relatable; they breathe.
Yes, the West Coast attitude can get a little tiresome (all the yoga, all the pot smoking), but it feels authentic and not self-congratulatory. Whether you appreciate the cultural trappings or not, we can always use more movies about real adults. Even the kind who haven’t grown up yet.
The couple in Digging could benefit from the kind of love-and-relationship advice found in the poems of Kahlil Gibran, showcased in the animated adaptation of his book, The Prophet.
The movie itself is a strange bird, sometimes lovely, sometimes silly. It can’t find a coherent mood. The visual style, though, is intentionally all over the place. Ten different director/animators are credited for the film. Each poem chosen (recited or sung) gets a distinct visual treatment, ranging from naïve to trippy to impressionistic.
These segments are set like gems in a narrative structure that doesn’t really work. In the city of Orphalese, single mother Kamila (voiced by Salma Hayek) contends with her young daughter, Almitra, who has gone mute since her father’s death and spends her days skipping school and stealing food and knick-knacks from the bazaar. These escapades are the excuse for a lot of Aladdin-like slapstick animation aimed at younger viewers… who will be baffled/bored by most of the rest of the movie.
Kamila works as housekeeper at a residence where local officials have imprisoned the “subversive” poet/artist Mustafa (immediately recognizable as the voice of Liam Neeson). It’s from him that all the poems and musings on love and friendship come. He is freed, after many years, to finally sail home to his own country — on the condition that he never return. But, of course, the fez-wearing officials who are his jailers have nefarious plans in store.
The movie is lovely to look at. But the poems’ reach for profundity (not always successful) clashes with the childish tone of the framing narrative. The Prophet has moments, but these are striking details in a tapestry that could have been more skillfully woven.
Digging for Fire. With Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson. Directed by Joe Swanberg. Rated R. 85 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The Prophet. With the voices of Liam Neeson, Salma Hayek, Quvenzhané Wallis. Directed by Roger Allers and nine others. Rated PG. 84 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.