Despite being in his early thirties, writer-director Joe Swanberg has nearly 30 directing credits to his name. Though many of them are shorts, his output is kind of overwhelming—six of his films came out in 2011 alone. He made at least three films, Caitlin Plays Herself, Alexander the Last, and All the Light in the Sky, about actresses who fret about the complexities of being an actress. In 2013, he made a splash with Drinking Buddies, featuring two bona fide movie stars, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick. Last year brought Happy Christmas, which didn’t make much of an impact, despite giving the popular Kendrick the starring role. Now arrives his biggest movie ever, in terms of an attempt at that dirty thing called a plot, and with traditional movie stars—Sam Rockwell! Orlando Bloom, for Pete’s sake!
Drinking Buddies was about male and female friends entertaining the idea of becoming something more, and Happy Christmas centered on a charismatic loser gradually wearing out her welcome, and nothing more than that. Digging for Fire is about more than its characters hanging out, but only slightly. Tim (Jake Johnson), a public high school teacher, and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), yoga instructor to wealthy Los Angelinos, are spending a few weeks housesitting for one of her movie star clients, with their three-year-old son Jude (played with great charm by Swanberg’s real-life son, who looks exactly like him) joining them.
Shortly after they arrive, Tim sets to gardening and discovers what looks like a very old human femur and a rusted gun. Lee agrees that this is odd, but pleads with him not to dig up the whole yard—it isn’t their house after all. Tim calls the police, but they tell him to go screw himself unless he finds a full body. See? Plot. Kind of.
Lee decides to take Jude to her nearby uber-rich parents’ house for the weekend, and Tim can do the taxes in peace. So, of course, Tim invites his friends over to drink beer and smoke joints. (There is almost no scene where Tim isn’t drinking an IPA.) Tim has over friends from his adult, professional life, notably the doughy, risk-averse Phil (Mike Birbiglia), who is the ideal friend that a wife would want her husband to have to help keep him in line. They drink and play childhood swimming pool games like 500—remember 500?
Eventually, Tim’s old friends from his wayward youth start showing up, since it’s not every day that they have access to the estate of a member of the modern-day nobility. The rugged Ray (Sam Rockwell, with a mountain man beard and leather jacket) shows up, and soon enough Billy T (Chris Messina, who goes full frontal) comes over with two party girls, Alicia (Anna Kendrick) and Max (Brie Larson). Don’t get excited—Kendrick has about four minutes of screen time.
Throughout the night as the party gets progressively wilder, but never all that wild (most are in their mid- to late-thirties), the party guests’ interest in Tim’s bone garden ebbs and flows. The movie’s a pretty novel balance of light mystery and chilled out partying that’s never quite outweighed by seriousness. Seriousness, after all, is just a cool thing that people will, like, totally dive into between beers only for a little bit, you know?
While this is happening, Lee is at her oligarchic parents’ house. Mom, played by a very game and energized Judith Light, is on her second marriage, and Lee admires how she has taken charge of her happiness. Unfortunately, Light is only on screen for about five minutes. (It’s that kind of movie—with its big cast, there isn’t enough screen time for all the characters to make much of an impact.)
Feeling boxed-in at her parents’, Lee goes out to a bar and makes the acquaintance of Ben (Orlando Bloom), a mysterious leather jacket-clad ladies’ man. Will Lee cheat on Tim with Ben? You wish they would just stop talking and do it so they would stop having stereotypical yoga conversations about spirituality and physicality. Blech.
One of the main arguments between Tim and Lee (though it is only discussed for about two minutes) is whether they should send their son to public preschool or go private. She reasons that since this is 2015 America, if you want to have a chance at attaining a reasonably comfortable upper middle-class salaried job, you had better start putting your resume together at age three, and attending a wretched public preschool is a sure way to put yourself behind the eight ball. Tim actually bristles for a moment at the hypocrisy of sending Jude to private preschool. Lee’s rich parents offer/insist to pay for it—their precious grandson cannot be permitted to intermix with the commoners.
Throughout, Tim recruits his rotating cast of friends to help him dig up more of the yard to get to what seems to be at least one human body, and possibly more. This is sort of an interesting central conceit but also a somewhat on-the-nose metaphor for pursuing truth or higher meaning.
Tim’s increasingly earnest quest to dig up the yard and find the truth is ultimately portrayed as a wrongheaded use of time and energy, because the answers don’t matter anyway. Don’t bother searching for meaning, just go along with everyone else, and drink some IPAs.