The interesting thing about mumblecore films is that they always seem longer than their approximate 90-minute running times. I credit this to their highly naturalistic style–they’re composed of scenes and dialogue deeply rooted in the everyday. A typical mumblecore film is about a group of friends having a dinner party or spending the weekend at a country house, and little more, and yet they’re not boring (if done right). But they do seem longer because on the surface less is happening, and you can’t easily see where the story is going because it’s not the exact same thing you’ve seen a million times before.
Joe Swanberg remains one of mumblecore’s most prolific directors, and while his, and his actors’ notoriety continue to increase, along with his budgets, he remains faithful to his style. Digging For Fire, which is currently playing at IFC Center, has more plot than his last film, Happy Christmas, but is still very much the 33-year-old Swanberg’s comfort zone–being a white, married, 30-something creative type with kids and the rest of your days stretched out before you. In many ways Digging For Fire (and many mumblecore films) is like a “little chill,” if you’re familiar with 1983’s The Big Chill (and you should be).
While house-sitting at a beautiful home tucked into a steep Californian canyon, young parents, Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson), encounter an early mid-life murmur. After a getting on each other’s nerves Lee drops off their toddler (Swanberg’s absolutely adorable son) with her parents (Judith Light and Sam Elliott) to have a night out with her old friend (Melanie Lynskey) while Tim stays at the house, searching for more clues about the human bone and rusty revolver he unearthed on the grounds. Then Lee’s friend bails on her and she ends up having a vaguely flirtatious evening with a chance gentleman (Orlando Bloom) and Tim ends up calling seldom-seen pals (Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Steve Berg and Mike Birbiglia) over for a boys night. They bring some ladies (Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson) so things get a bit flirty there too, but mostly the guys starting digging into the bone and revolver enigma.
Personally, I think the appeal of mysteries is that they have concrete answers, or at least the promise that such answers exist even if they are never to be found. But the mysteries of regular life have no such tangible truths for revelation. Why do we grow old and die? Where does the money go? Why do we hurt the ones we love? As Tim shovels closer to the truth he begins to wonder if some things aren’t better left buried–after all, what is it that he’s really searching for? And as both Tim and Lee have a night off from the small irritations of their life together, the glimpse moments bits of illumination from the others they encounter–Tim’s old friend (Rockwell) who can’t grow up and stop partying, Lee’s parents having their own issues even though they’re so much further down the road of life, and a number of brief conversations with Lyft drivers who have a few seemingly inconsequential lines and are never seen again. Gratefully none of these little slices-of-life come off as precious wisdom, they just seem like regular people saying regular stuff, but collectively there’s wisdom in the mix. When you acclimate to the mumblecore pace you can see that, and enjoy the film’s meandering without resenting it for not being a more fantastical escape.
So yes, this 90-minutes will feel more like two hours plus, because it always feels as if something is about to happen, and then it rarely does. Life often feels the same way, our clever, monkey minds always searching for connection, significance, recollection and revelation. We want to yell ‘Eureka!’ but instead are left to ponder the unresolvable mysteries–love, money, parenting, fidelity, aging. To quote Robert Frost, “We dance around the circle and suppose while the secret sits in the middle and knows. We need the pursuit of the fire to warm us,but search for it too closely and we will only get burned.”