Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) buys a leather jacket; Tim (Jake Johnson) buries his. This married couple borrows a house they could never actually afford from one of Lee’s yoga clients for a summer vacation; they spend the vacation worrying alternatively about whether they’re now too old and whether they’re acting old enough, and that debate rests at least in part on the fact that they don’t own a house like the one they’re staying in. We know this because Lee later lies to an Uber driver—who has already made it clear that she does not own a nice house either—that she doesn’t really want a house like the one she’s borrowed or the one that her Boomer mother owns (which the Uber driver has just finished lauding). Lee and Tim also have a child, but that child, Jude (Jude Swanberg), largely serves as a metaphor. For Tim, Jude’s is a relationship he feels compelled to nurture even if he feels doing so comes at the expense of his relationship with Lee. For Lee, Jude serves as a pivot point for her conversations with childless couples and child-having couples who all feel compelled to tell her that having a child won’t change her or her husband or their ability to go on vacations.
Like in most Joe Swanberg films, in Digging for Fire characters are their conversations and their conversations are symbols. Also, like in most Joe Swanberg films, there isn’t much plot here. Tim randomly finds a gun and a bone in the garden (he, like Lee, feels compelled to lie; he tells a neighbor he was gardening). He wants to dig, Lee doesn’t want him to destroy the garden because the house isn’t theirs, and Tim does it anyway because the hole he is digging is a metaphor for his own insecurities, though he’s not trying to escape life so much as he’s trying to hide from it. If that metaphor wasn’t enough, a bunch of Tim’s friends—some old, some new—arrive while Lee and Jude are visiting her parents and Tim is supposed to be doing the family’s taxes to literalize everything: Because Lee is away, Tim snorts cocaine (which he lies about to a neighbor) and digs his hole deeper. Phil (Mike Birbiglia) refuses to help because he thinks the dig is childish, Ray (Sam Rockwell) eggs him on because he thinks Tim stopped acting childishly enough when he got married, and Paul (Steve Berg) and Adam (Kent Osbourne) help Tim dig the hole because it seems cool to do something childish for a while, until they get bored and leave. Tim’s coolest friend (a full frontal Chris Messina) never even looks at the hole because he doesn’t care. His name is Tango.
You won’t be shocked to learn that Tim eventually tells both Phil and Ray to stop lecturing him about how he should act right before he fills the hole. That’s where this marriage of metaphor and plot has been heading all along, so the only real mystery is whether or not Tim will cheat on Lee with Max (Brie Larson), one of the two women Tango brought to the dig/party. (The other woman is played by Anna Kendrick, who has appeared in many Swanberg films, but is barely used here.) Meanwhile, Lee drops Jude off with her mother (Judith Light) and stepfather (Sam Elliot) so that she can visit her friends Squiggy (Melanie Lynskey) and Bob (Ron Livingston). She soon discovers that even though the couple seem to have money they argue an awful lot in front of company. She ditches them and heads solo to a bar where she meets Ben (Orlando Bloom). Will she cheat on Tim with Ben? Does she have buyer’s remorse about that leather jacket while she’s riding on Ben’s motorbike, and is that feeling cosmically related to Tim dusting off his leather jacket to wear on his date with Max?
I feel about Digging for Fire the same way I’ve felt about other Swanberg films: There’s nothing new about this story, so what engagement there is lies in the chemistry and improvisation of the actors, the rest of the film hamstrung by the lack of subtlety with metaphor—especially since it doesn’t really go anywhere. Once Tim fills in the hole (the catalyst for which is so on the nose it stands out even in this on-the-nose film) and walks away it’s almost impossible for Lee not to be standing there waiting for him, newly amused at his irascible inability to be responsible and just do the damn taxes already. Which means that we spend a lot of time with various men and women in various states of arrested development—at least by the terms of one narrow view, because make no mistake: This is a film that is exclusively about middle-class white heterosexuals—only to conclude that it’s okay to feel conflicted about adulthood in an era where the Boomer dream is metaphorically powerful but functionally infeasible. And it’s okay because there’s still something deeply authentic about real love between a man and a woman.
The point of course is that Tim and Lee didn’t need to take a vacation together in a dream house they could never afford, they needed to take a vacation from each other (and Jude). It seems strange to pretend that such a simplistic conclusion is the solution to the myriad of mundane-but-epic fissures that exist in this couple’s relationship, but that’s not the point—and I’m not sure I come away from Digging for Fire understanding what the point of that point was.
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg, Jake Johnson
Starring: Rasemarie DeWitt, Jake Johnson, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynsky, Ron Livington, Sam Elliot, Judith Light
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.