You can take away my indie credentials if you must, but I don’t get Joe Swanberg. It’s not that his movies are bad, or even poorly made, they’re just not that interesting. You can add to the list Lynn Shelton, Lena Dunham and anything with Greta Gerwig. I just don’t understand why they continue to be held up as representative of what’s exciting in Indie film (personally I find Mike Cahill, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij far more exciting). Joe Swanberg’s latest post-mumblecore film DIGGING FOR FIRE world premiered at Sundance Monday and while it is eminently watchable, it is also easily forgettable.
Jake Johnson stars as Tim, the sort of guy who does anything to get out of doing what his wife has asked him to do and likes to sit around the house and smoke pot with his friends. Rosemarie DeWitt plays Lee, his wife who does just about anything to avoid her husband, including going outside to smoke pot and read a book by the pool. As two single people who became a couple that then produced a child, they are both struggling to grasp the identity they once had, which threatens to be overwhelmed by the collective family identity. House-sitting for one of Lee’s Yoga clients (we never learn what Tim does), they stumble upon a buried mystery in the back yard, a rusty gun and what looks to be a human bone. Of course Tim wants to expose the unknown and dig up the back yard, something he begins as soon as Lee leaves for the weekend. Lee is looking to have a fun girls night out, but instead finds herself alone. Tim, on the other hand, slips into a dangerous flirtation with a friend of a friend who wants to help him dig.
That’s the basic plot but it does not really capture the film. Most of the film is a series of improvised conversations between a huge ensemble of characters, most of which add nothing to story. I really liked the idea of both husband and wife searching for something they were missing in their relationship, but it’s not clear how these two activities really fill (or attempt to fill) that gap. Also, it’s a very nebulous idea, one to hang a story on, but there is very little development.
In fact, much of Digging for Fire feels like a first draft, a series of chronologically connected incidents that do not bring greater awareness only further discussion. Each scene plays as a sort of place holder, being a sketch of what might happen in a scene, but never with the depth to emotionally invest in any of the characters. Plus, it’s hard to really feel bad for these people, they are arguing over what preschool to send their child to, not how to have enough money to eat). The supporting cast all dive in for a scene or two with boldly and broadly drawn personalities, again, ones that could use a little more understanding of how they might play into the whole story.
There are characters which basically do the exact thing as another character (like the first two friends), so why have both? Anna Kendrick is in the husband storyline as a stranger brought over to the party, and shows up in the wife story as well the next night but why? What was the reason behind it? Pay it off. Apparently a majority of the script is improvised and Swanberg’s style is called, by many of the actors who shared the stage with him at the premiere, collaborative. Sometimes I wonder if collaborative really just means lazy, because that’s what this film feels like. The characters are archetypes instead of real people, the plot is poorly developed with almost no tension, and the dialogue often sounds like people trying to one up each other, an old improv game.
I have no problem that this film is playing in a film festival, I just don’t understand why this is playing Sundance. Surely with all the submissions the festival gets (over 12,000) there had to be a better film that can represent and stimulate indie film. Surely with all the films Swanberg has released, he doesn’t need Sundance to play his film. Surely there is a more deserving yet undiscovered filmmaker that Sundance could be playing instead.
Again, it’s not a bad film, it’s just not anything special. It’s several drafts away froma solid draft..It’s not going change any minds on Swanberg, and it’s not be a big breakout hit. But again, I don’t get Swanberg, I don’t see why he’s so great, so maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is a genius film and I just don’t get it.
Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film-by-film reaction of this year’s festival.