Digging for Fire / The Gift / Impossible Mishugas

DIGGING FOR FIRE

Directed and written by Joe Swanberg                                           

This film is dedicated to Paul Mazursky, cited at the end of the credits for this twisty, charming, probing somewhat comedy. Mazursky died last June, age 84. After thinking about the film, unsettling yet independent despite the obvious elements of urban comedy, we decided the entire skein of interesting California Gen-X and near-Middle Agers is an homage to Mazursky, genial genii of the genre.

Mazursky dished dramatic comedies that juggled with modern social issues, and was nominated for five Academy Awards: three times for Best Original Screenplay, once for Best Adapted Screenplay, and once for Best Picture for An Unmarried Woman (1978). Others written/directed by Mazursky include the phenom Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Blume in Love (1973), Harry and Tonto (1974), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). And in 1989, he brought the salty Isaac Bashevis Singer post-Holocaust story, Enemies: A Love Story, into film lore. In these films, a veneer of safe societal comfort was dog-eared to reveal a shambling someone just at the edges: Life isn’t all Skittles and Nutella. There’s always, somewhere, a rusty wrench to crimp the proceedings.

Like these classic ‘comedies,’ Digging for Fire combines elements of unfolding relationships, irony, thwarted dreams, parenting frets, efforts at optimism and a vein of sourness attendant on the conflict of individual versus married person. If you don’t look too deep, or demand much, you get to laugh, like a rare salad dressing, used sparingly. If you choose to see more than the giggles and knowing nods, you see the innate difficulties in reconciling marriage with the will toward selfhood, freedom, oats-sowing. Self-determination, despite the bills, car payments, the poop on the bathroom floor from the little cutie you have somehow brought into life. Comparing one’s younger self to one’s now self.

The focal couple in Digging are house-sitting at a gorgeous estate -- tennis court, pool, massive stone fireplaces, vast foliage and shrubbery. Jake (played with anguished anomie and itchy rootlessness by Jake Johnson) is a public school teacher. Wife Lee (the always likable and interesting Rosemarie DeWitt) wants to send their preschooler (adorable Jude Swanberg, a fine actor if ever you saw a 3-year-old comer) to a significant, upscale private preschool, using her parents’ (Judith Light; Sam Elliott) money and hauteur. (She: “Experts say, Honey, that pre-school is even more important to get ahead and accepted to college than even the right high school….” He: “What experts?”) Leaving her husband to do the undone taxes spread all over the table, she hauls off for a solo time to her parents’ elegant digs for a breather.

Jake invites pals over (Ron Livingston, Steve Berg among them) for the pool, brews and lines, and two women come along. You think, Aha, he’s going to be unfaithful. But the script elides that obvious potential plot point. Instead, he gets the guys het up to dig back near the pool, where he has found a long, dried femur bone… and a rusty Beretta. The sleuthing soon flags for the men, but one 

of the women (Brie Larson) along for the guys and suds, picks up a shovel and joins Jake.

Meanwhile, wife DeWitt is exploring the small California reserves of being home-free for once. At a diner, she’s approached by a heavy-leering drunk, and saved by an onlooker. (Sure, every woman harassed in a greasy spoon is saved by the likes of Orlando Bloom… yeah.) She spends time with him 

as his gashes from defending her are sewn up by – surprise -- Anna Kendrick, who turns out to be a med student, though in the pool the night before, she’d seemed more like a party girl. Ha -- here comes infidelity with… oops, wrong again.

The split story continues, never where you think it will gravitate. You are off-kilter all the time, most of time, uncomfortably so. The writing is thoughtful, unclichéd, and the subtle action is not for teens, as it delves into growing up, growing out, growing old.

The entire film is steeped in plausible options, as well as not the usual Hollywoodiana. The credits afterwards give big thanks to many of the stellar names of the LA firmament -- clearly, this one lent his home, that one lent his restaurant, the other gave access to his pool. The neighb is seductive: gorgeous homes nestled in verdant privacies.

It probably cost three dollars, what with all the favors extended by Hollywood pals and locals in the celluloid biz. (Credits were florid with “Extra-special thanks to” -- a  jubilee of names who extended favors and settings realia.)

It’s clear that a whole claque of actors gave their okay to being in this. Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell, established persons in the walk of wonder, appear for mere minutes. Others are recognizable for their cameos, but they aren’t forced. It’s obvious they read the script and thought, Shoot, wow, yes.

This is an adult script, relatable and probing. Not taking the easy or obvious next step, but working around to plausible choices. Lingers in the head, this one.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Sad to say, that is all in contrast to Tom Cruise’s endless reboot of his franchise action films, and of course this Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation  (can you tell them apart?), where despite convoluted and laocoon plots, you can predict to a nano when the hi-tech chase will be, how too-long, what cycles and trucks and choppers will be involved, as well as where the over-subtitled locales will land you, and it’s all kind of a fog machine for teens to speed, flout the authorities, break things and make do, for tech toys and implausible villains.

This stunt-guy -- Cruise does all those derring-do flying-Walenda things on the side of a lift-off 757 -- is the largest single contributor to Scientology, necessitating all those franchises involving gee-whiz stunts. And Cruise is exec producer for his films, controlling the money spigot. Which is why Cruise doesn’t scale the mountain of serious films, since they are not surefire moneymakers, and his Scientology overlords mandate the monster-tithing Cruise to keep their coffers fresh and green.

The only diverting elements are Alec Baldwin as the refractory head of the CIA who cashiers the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), and Jeremy Renner, who provides deadpan humor and attractive gravitas. We are so used to the comic Alec that one kept expecting one-liners out of him. But no.

Mission is cotton candy that doesn’t even feel good while gumming its empty pink nothingness.

THE GIFT

Directed by Joel Edgarton

Like Digging, The Gift is a goosebumpy ride that was slightly spoiled, regrettably, by its early tell-too-much trailer; another slice of the zeitgeist. Gift stars the kaleidoscopic Jason Bateman, terrific, understated Rebecca Hall and uneasy creep/neighbor Joel Edgarton, each more than holding their own. The audience goes along not knowing  exactly what’s wrong with this picture of a happily married couple moving into a lovely new home, getting the unwanted attentions and beribboned gifts of a persistent old “school colleague.” Tingly, suspenseful, uncomfortably scary, worth a civil glance. Another adult-person movie, though it works, one guesses, for an unsophisticated teen crowd, too, even if much of the psychology is lost on their a-borning thresholds. We learned that suspenseful movies like Digging and Gift evoke really distressing sensations not easily dispelled. Sitting still becomes harder than usual.