Friday, August 21, 2015

Still Orbiting Each Other: A Review of "Digging for Fire" [Contributor: Jaime Poland]

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

Still Orbiting Each Other: A Review of Digging for Fire, and roundtable interview with the cast

Last week, Just About Write received an invitation to be part of a virtual roundtable discussion with Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt, stars of the new film Digging for Fire, opening today in Los Angeles at Sundance Sunset Cinemas and available on demand on August 25th.  In addition to the roundtable, participants also received an advanced look at the film, which was directed by Joe Swanberg and co-written by Swanberg and Johnson.  Distributed by The Orchard, the synopsis for the film reads, “Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie Dewitt) are married with a young child. The chance to stay at a fancy home in the Hollywood Hills is complicated by Tim's discovery of a bone and a rusty old gun in the yard. Tim is excited by the idea of a mystery, but Lee doesn't want him to dig any further, preferring that he focus on the family taxes, which he promised to do weeks ago. This disagreement sends them on separate and unexpected adventures over the course of a weekend, as Tim and his friends seek clues to the mystery while Lee searches for answers to the bigger questions of marriage and parenthood.”

In classic Swanberg style, there was no script for the film; instead, the actors improvised each scene based on a outline written by Swanberg and Johnson, resulting in a quiet, slow-paced film that’s entirely character-driven.  Secondary characters pepper Tim and Lee’s weekend journeys, but the film's focus is truly on Tim and Lee.  It’s a relatable story, populated by recognizable characters and universal conflicts.  That universality is what gives this film its legs: it’s not depicting a couple over the course of a hugely defining weekend, or a couple in the last days before they split up.  It’s just a couple over the course of one weekend, years into their marriage.  There’s comfort and trust between them, which allows the two leads to spend most of the film separated.  “[A couple] can take something from those [separate] experiences and bring them home, and it actually can make you guys stronger,” as Johnson puts it, and that unwavering faith that Tim and Lee will still like each other gives the film freedom to let these characters fully explore their time away from their spouse.

Mike Birbiglia, Jake Johnson and Sam Rockwell in Digging for Fire / Photo courtesy of The Orchard

And that’s the question at the center of the film: how can two people be a couple while still maintaining their individual identities?  Can they be as happy together as they can be apart?  That question is illustrated for Tim and Lee by the people they encounter over the weekend.  For Lee, at first, it’s a lot of couples: her parents, divorced but still amiable, who understand the importance of having an identity outside of being a wife and a mother.  Then there are her friends Squiggy (Melanie Lynsky) and Bob (Ron Livingston), who have no separation at all between their marriage, children, and professional identities.  These side characters, along with the characters in Tim’s story, help create archetypes to represent different stages of life.  But none of them exactly fit what Lee’s looking for, and none quite represent exactly what she’s feeling.  She loves her family and her husband and son have a large role in her identity, but for as much as she loves them, she so desperately wants a night all on her own.  It’s not an approach often seen; it seems that films rarely show a wife without her husband, or a mother without her child.  That’s why it’s so important that Digging for Fire isn’t about a particularly momentous weekend: it’s not about the interruption of Tim and Lee’s normal lives, where they no longer have familial obligations.  In fact, it’s saying quite the opposite.  People will always have obligations – as the tagline says, “A film about death and taxes.”  Those will always be there, but their universality doesn’t make them uninteresting.  However, what’s more interesting is what people will do when they’re not directly faced with their responsibilities.

While Lee spends most of her time with couples, Tim is entirely surrounded by single people.  Films love to perpetuate the stereotype that a married dad just wants to get a weekend of freedom so he can feel young and reckless again, but that’s not exactly the case for Tim.  At first, he only spends time with his friend Phil (Mike Birbiglia), who like Tim is married and a father, but is much more conservative and reserved.  Even when his single and wild friend Ray (Sam Rockwell) shows up, Tim is still talking about Lee and their son Jude.  As the party gets wilder and a few more people show up, it’s clear that Tim doesn’t belong: he’s not part of their conversations, and doesn’t really know how to relate to them as a group.  That’s the hard part about being surrounded by archetypes.  Tim doesn’t fit in with Ray and his friends Tango (Chris Messina) and Alicia (Anna Kendrick), but he and Lee don’t fit in with her parents or Squiggy and Bob, either.  They’re not alone but they’re not feeling like part of anything else.

Photo courtesy of The Orchard

In fact, maybe the only shared identity Tim and Lee have is with each other.  The filmmakers went to great lengths to put in a few symbols here and there, particularly in Lee’s storyline, to keep the characters connected throughout their weekend apart.  The most obvious one is the book Lee keeps finding, “Passionate Marriage.”  She’s reading it herself, then comes across it at her mother’s house and on Alicia’s bookshelf.  It represents all her insecurities about her marriage and her desire to have her life comprised of more than routine, but by finding it at the beginning and near the end of her night out, it keeps the night centered around Tim.  She’s not going out to forget about him, rather just to be without him.  Alicia herself is another important connection: she’s the only character who pops up in both Tim and Lee’s stories, and while she doesn’t learn that the man she partied with the previous night is married to the woman who came to her house with her friend Ben, it shows how small this world is.  Lee’s not somewhere on the other side of the country; her husband is only a few minutes away.  They’re still orbiting each other.

Arguably the most important connection between Lee and Tim are the leather jackets they both wear.  He wears his in an attempt (conscious or not) to emulate his friend Ray, but Lee buys herself a leather jacket after she’s already gone to her mother’s.  That means it’s something Tim’s never seen before, and thus, unlike the rest of her outfit, is completely unconnected to him.  It’s entirely hers.  By putting it on, she’s putting her independence on display over her relationship.  That’s what she wants to portray that night.  But as soon as she gets to the bar and a man starts awkwardly hitting on her, she quickly informs him that she’s married.  While she wants to have a night to herself, she can’t and doesn’t want to hide her marriage, because it’s not something she’s unhappy about.  Lee just wants the freedom to present herself in the way she chooses, and create her own identity, even if just for a night.

So maybe that’s what Tim’s digging means to him: it gives him the chance to form his own identity, too.  He gets to turn himself into an adventurer and earn praise and attention from the people around him.  Or it allows him to be part of a group, if not the de facto leader, since he’s the one who brought them all together.  It certainly attracts Max’s (Brie Larson) attention, though, as Johnson notes, she’s not romantically interested in Tim himself, but rather, interested in the adventure he’s created.

Tim’s newfound friendship with Max is one of the more intriguing aspects of the film.  There’s nothing romantic or sexual there, but it is intimate: he invites her to hang out in a home that isn’t even his, that he’s only stayed in with his wife and son.  There’s a huge amount in tension in all their scenes together, because it seems so obvious that one of them will slip up and make some kind of move.  But that never happens.  The biggest violation is when Tim gives Max one of Lee’s dresses to wear, and in a way, that’s even worse than if he had kissed her.

Orlando Bloom and Rosemarie DeWitt / Photo courtesy of The Orchard

But Lee is the one who actually kisses someone else: the exciting and dangerous Ben (Orlando Bloom).  For all that Tim is breaking his promise to his wife not to keep digging to find more to go with the bone and gun he found and partying with friends instead of doing his taxes, Lee is really the one digging for fire.  Her story throughout the film is so much calmer than Tim’s, and given that stereotype of what married men want to do when their wives are away, it’s impossible not to lean forward and cringe as you watch Tim surely move closer and closer to doing something from which his marriage can’t recover.  But outside of giving another woman his wife’s dress (a move that, to be fair, is reasonable in context), he doesn’t.  He’s perfectly innocent.  It’s Lee, who’s spending the weekend with her parents, who just wants to go out for a drink with her friend, who winds up kissing someone else.  She ends it immediately, and though it’s clear she enjoyed the kiss, she knows the best thing to do is to leave.  And so she does.

For as much as this film is about the quiet occurrences of everyday married life, it’s not boring.  It doesn’t pretend that its characters stories aren’t worth telling, because they are.  As DeWitt says in the roundtable, this film is about two people who want to be married to each other.  They’ve chosen to be together, and they like being together.  And for all the strange and unusual adventures they encounter over the course of this weekend, the film ends with a kiss and reconciliation.  For all the tension and unpredictability throughout the film, of course Tim and Lee are going to return to each other at the end of the weekend.  Their marriage isn’t over, and certainly wouldn’t be over just because they spent a day apart.  Their marriage is strong, their trust in each other is strong, and at the end of the day, they like each other a whole lot.

Listen to our full roundtable interview here:

And if you're in the Los Angeles area, be sure to check out Digging for Fire or purchase it on demand!


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