When you watch Joe Swanberg’s movies, you’re struck by the ostensible love interests. How can two people so starkly contrasted ever hope to forge a lasting relationship? In Swanberg’s earlier work (“Silver Bullets,” “Drinking Buddies”), the results often aren’t pretty. In his latest, the excellent “Digging for Fire” (co-written with Jake Johnson), Swanberg takes an uncharacteristically roundabout route to highlight how similar the love interests are to his past work.

Rosemarie DeWitt plays a yoga instructor married to Johnson who plays a public school teacher. A client of hers has loaned them a cozy cottage for the month in East Los Angeles, a zip code of homes far out of reach of anything DeWitt and Johnson could afford. Not long after they arrive, Johnson, digging around the backyard, unearths a gun and a bone. Bucking against parenthood (they have a toddler, played by Swanberg’s own son) and mundane responsibilities, he decides to keep digging. Meanwhile, DeWitt, a little antsy and frustrated with Johnson, drops off her son at her wealthy parents’ home before she begins a night on the town.

There’s a lot to love about this movie. The writing gives everyone in the impressive cast (Sam Rockwell, Judith Light, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Elliot, Melanie Lynskey, Orlando Bloom, Ron Livingston, Jenny Slate, Timothy Simons) enough time to make their contribution and then fade into the background, though stretches in the third act left me missing Rockwell’s patented energy. The hazy, slow-moving camerawork fits right in with the probing, searching quality of the story, and, as the digging continues, what Swanberg is trying to say becomes clearer.

As Johnson reaches the bottom of the hole and finds what he had half-hoped to find, he realizes that, in order for him to make his marriage work, he’s going to need to bury some of the adventures he might’ve had earlier in life. There’s sadness in that realization, but as Johnson moves beyond his coke-dealing, immature friends to embrace his wife, he realizes he’s on a more interesting adventure than digging at the bottom of a garden.

Johnson, known mostly for his work on “New Girl,” has put in a couple of good years at the movies now (“Safety Not Guaranteed,” “Drinking Buddies,” “Jurassic World”). Though the former part doesn’t exactly challenge him, it presents more evidence that Johnson has quietly become a capable leading man. He’s helped by DeWitt’s restraint. She’s reluctant to become a cliché of married women at a certain age; because of that reluctance, her performance feels very real.

Swanberg has resisted being pigeonholed as a mumblecore director, yet he’s still lumped together with Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers. Recently, he’s started to attract bigger names to his projects—if he can continue to grow as a writer and a director, his unique work should shine through.

Bernstein is a member  of

the class of 2018.



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