Sunday, December 6, 2015

Splashing the pot with talent

There's no doubt Joe Swanberg has come a long way since his mumblecore roots, but I'm not sure anyone realized he'd come quite this far.

Not in his filmmaking style or the subject matter that interests him. That's about the same as his first film, ten years ago. (Or so I would tell you if I'd actually seen that film, called Kissing on the Mouth.)

Rather, it's the fame of the actors chosen to execute only a slightly more polished version of that decade-old mumblecore.

Swanberg has collected a lot of really famous friends along the way, and in Digging for Fire, they all show up.

I'll take you through my thoughts as I watched the opening credits -- one by one with each set of credits that appeared together on the screen.

Jake Johnson

"Right, knew about that. He was in Swanberg's breakthrough movie, Drinking Buddies. And he's on the poster."

Rosemarie DeWitt

"Right, knew about that. She's in all these Duplassy type movies. And she's on the poster."

Jane Adams
Steve Berg
Mike Birbiglia

"All right, this is interesting. One of the cast members of Happiness, and a Marc Maron-style breakout comic. Don't know who Steve Berg is."

Orlando Bloom
Tom Bower
Sam Elliott

"ORLANDO BLOOM?? And Sam Elliott? Don't know who Tom Bower is."

Anna Kendrick
Brie Larson
Judith Light

"Now wait now. You're talking about two of the hottest commodities in Hollywood under 30. (One of whom was in Drinking Buddies, and also last year's Swanberg-directed Happy Christmas.) And ... Angela from Who's the Boss?!?"

Ron Livingston
Melanie Lynskey
Chris Messina

"Okay, now just get right out of town. Two solid indie character actors who have had their share of Hollywood crossover success (one of whom appeared in Drinking Buddies), plus a great Kiwi actress who should be more famous than she is (and was also in Happy Christmas)."

Kent Osborne
Sam Rockwell
Timothy Simons

"Okay, now it's starting to get a bit obscure except HOLY SHIT! Sam Rockwell?!?!?"

Jenny Slate
Jude Swanberg

"Another breakout comic, and of course the director's son. Who was also in Happy Christmas."

That's enough recognizable names and faces for three regular movies, let alone one Joe Swanberg movie.

Remember that part in Rounders when the etiquette of "splashing the pot" -- or more properly, not splashing the pot -- is discussed? It's considered bad form to throw your poker chips with such little regard for their landing spot that they either bowl over the existing sense of order of the other chips, or become indistinguishable as a separate bet that has not yet been assimilated into the pot. Well, here, Swanberg is just splashing his movie with talented people, tossing them almost indiscriminately at the production.

And though it's nice to see all those familiar faces, pretty much all of whom I have at least limited affection for, it does seem a bit like overkill. Elliott, Lynsky, Messina, Livingston, Light and Slate all have exactly one scene, but because they seem to demand something greater than just a throwaway role, each kind of seems to start on a bit of a character arc that of course never goes anywhere. I suppose that could be part of the design of a movie like this, which is meant to put across only the faintest of messages while concentrating more on providing us a slice of real life. But especially with someone like Slate, who is only the woman who DeWitt and Johnson are housesitting for and doesn't even get to say a single funny thing, it seems like a bit of a waste of talent.

Still, what I find really promising about this is how much it demonstrates the yearning of these actors to be in something they consider to have meaning. Some of them have got the meaning pretty well covered, appearing mostly in indies that are mostly pretty good, but then you take someone like Bloom, whose movies have grossed more than almost anyone else in history between the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and the two Tolkien trilogies, and who spends more time starring on the covers of tabloid newspapers these days than appearing in movies. (Or is it only in Australia where we get constant updates on the status of his relationship with Australian model Miranda Kerr?) He's desperate for an indie makeover, though I'd hardly say this qualifies as the start of it. (He's fine but unremarkable.)

In any case, at the very least, no one is doing this for the money. They probably each got paid a buck twenty-five to appear in Digging for Fire, with an invitation to pocket as many bagels from the craft services table as they care to.

All in all it's a nice and perceptive little movie, not quite reaching the heights of Happy Christmas but far clearing the low bar that (I thought) was set by Drinking Buddies. (And where is Olivia Wilde in this cast, anyway? She's the only person of any note that Swanberg has worked with who's missing.)

Now that I've seen three of Swanberg's films and have about 19 more to go, I can't decide if I'm more excited to look forward to his next project or back to the ones I haven't yet discovered (Hannah Takes the Stairs is a name I hear discussed with some regularity.) The path forward may be more studded with stars, but it's possible the path backward will feel more honest.

Either way, I like this director and look forward to seeing more of his movies ... whether he splashes them with talent, or just with truth.

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