The Austin Chronicle

Digging for Fire

Rated R, 85 min. Directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Anna Kendrick, Judith Light, Sam Elliott, Mike Birbiglia, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 28, 2015

After years casting his micro-indie community pals in his pictures, the absurdly prolific Joe Swanberg peopled his 2013 film Drinking Buddies with bona fide SAG card carriers. A flip got switched, it seems: Digging for Fire crams the frame with so many terrific actors, there’s hardly any room left for a story.

At the film’s beginning, a family of three says goodbye for the weekend. Holed up in their plush vacation home, Tim (Johnson, who co-wrote the script with Swanberg) has been tasked with getting their taxes done. Wife Lee (DeWitt) is taking their toddler son to her mother’s house, where she’ll get free babysitting to have a much-needed night on the town with an old friend. Both of their plans are derailed. When her friend bails on their night out, Lee falls into a kind-of adventure with a sensitive chef (Bloom). Meanwhile Tim invites his friends over for beers and burgers, and they all alight with purpose when he mentions the weird burial ground out back; the bro barbecue turns into a digging party. Soon enough, a couple of cute girls drop by, including one played by Brie Larson, who hangs around like loose change, waiting for the film to put her to use.

Shot on 35mm, Digging for Fire aesthetically leap-frogs Swanberg’s early-Aughts digital indies. But its emphasis on the long shot speaks to the film’s democratic spirit, to the detriment of character specificity. Why should we have to wade through the dross of so many unformed characters to get to any tangible conflict? And is a close-up really so awful a thing?

A shapeless meditation on marriage and its many compromises, only one scene shoots off the surprising crackles and sparks of static electricity. Larson finally gets something to do – prowl a living room, stalking Tim (and getting stalked back) to the sounds of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs’ “Li’l Red Riding Hood.” The moment vibrates with sexiness and danger – finally, we’re getting somewhere! – but Swanberg beats a fast retreat from it. Digging for Fire fails its title’s own promise: It has the capacity for startling insight and artistry, but mostly it’s just a toe listlessly pushing dirt around.

Jake Johnson will be present at the 7 and 10pm shows on Friday.

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