Improvised short stories fuel hit-and-miss ‘Digging’

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, August 26, 2015 4:03pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The final credit on “Digging for Fire” is a dedication to the late Paul Mazursky, the director of “Bob &Carol &Ted &Alice” and “An Unmarried Woman” and other bittersweet comedies of manners. It can be presumptuous for a young filmmaker — here, mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg — to invoke a predecessor.

But in this case, fair enough. “Digging for Fire” has aspects that do indeed recall Mazursky’s movies: a sunburnt L.A. location, an undercurrent of satire directed at its floundering characters, and close attention to actors. Some pretentiousness, too, although in this case everything goes down pretty easily.

While Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt, of “Touchy Feely”) house-sit in a rambling mansion far above their pay grade (she’s a yoga instructor to a rich person who’s lent them the place for a while), they decide to spend a weekend apart.

Lee takes their toddler son (Jude Swanberg) to stay with her family (Judith Light and Sam Elliott), while Tim stays home to party with buddies (Sam Rockwell and Mike Birbiglia among them).

Tim can’t concentrate because he’s found an old bone and a rusted handgun on the property. Surely there’s a story there, and before long he and the ever-growing party — Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick are in the mix, too — are randomly digging up the yard in search of anything interesting. (As a metaphor for Swanberg’s customary improv filmmaking style, this is almost too apt.)

Lee, meanwhile, has an adventure when left to her own devices. This material (Swanberg co-wrote the film with Johnson, after they worked together on “Drinking Buddies”) comes across like a short story written by a first-time author, an effect not helped by improvisation.

Most scenes end in middle-of-the-road insights offered by well-intentioned actors. The film is maybe more L.A. than it thinks it is.

If that fumbling style is an acquired taste, “Digging for Fire” nevertheless hits some surprisingly enjoyable notes. And certain actors thrive in this freewheeling atmosphere; Melanie Lynsky and Ron Livingston, as Lee’s married friends, suggest a whole life together in their limited appearance.

Comedian Birbiglia is terrific as Tim’s square pal — you keep wishing the movie would veer toward him, rather than Rockwell’s beer-swilling boor. And Orlando Bloom is more intriguing in 15 minutes of screen time here than he was in the entirety of “Elizabethtown” (or any other Orlando Bloom movie, for that matter). That alone is justification of Swanberg’s actor-oriented approach.

“Digging for Fire” (2½ stars)

An L.A. couple (Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt) spend a weekend apart, and each have adventures. This partly-improvised film by Joe Swanberg has too many middle-of-the-road insights to really build into something big, but the large, talented cast is clearly thriving in the freewheeling style.

Rating: R, for nudity, language

Showing: Northwest Film Forum

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