Digging for Fire has more familiar faces than the dive bar across the street. The leads are Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt, playing a married couple who argue about the “usual things”—she wants him to do the taxes, he wants her to turn down the handouts offered by her parents—until he digs up a gun and a bone in the backyard of their temporary home, at which point they have something unusual to argue about.
It’s not a cue toward a literal mystery: It’s an abstraction, a symbol, a dramatic trick. Its humble purpose is to set these parties out for nights within their respective social circles. Johnson parties with Sam Rockwell (playing the drunk one), Mike Birbiglia (the responsible one), Brie Larson (the sexy one), and Anna Kendrick (who exhibits no discernable character traits), while DeWitt meets with friends (Melanie Lynskey), family (Sam Elliott), and a sexy temptation of her own (Orlando Bloom and his intimidating forehead). Flirtations ensue. Anxieties are revealed. Cheating is contemplated. The marital skeletons get excavated, just like the metaphor promised.
The filmmaker is Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), a director of semi-improvised comedies who used to make barely released films with his friends (one of them was Greta Gerwig). Now he works with professionals—but if Fire is any indication, he’s still not writing past the first draft. The camera is stabler than it once was: It watches at a detached distance, not daring to move, but at least keeps multiple people within individual compositions at angles that occasionally give your eye more than one thing to look at. So the upside is that his sense of framing has evolved to a level that can be described as “competent.” But then, you could say the same thing about beer commercials.
Kendrick shows up for a second time, now in DeWitt’s timeline. If this were a farce, that scene would see Johnson and Larson come crashing in, and all the movie’s threads would intersect. But the beats here aren’t written, they’re riffed. And like all the film’s unexplained detours, Kendrick’s recurrence is just a lark. Swanberg’s got all these actors, and no characters to put them in.
There’s a line in She’s Funny That Way: “Coincidence is a way of reminding us that there’s someone up there with a massive plan.” The absence of intrusions in that second Kendrick scene is enough to suggest that Swanberg’s cinema is sorely lacking in coincidences. But Funny, directed and co-written by screwball-comedy advocate Peter Bogdanovich—well, coincidence is all that it’s got. It’s an eight-person partner-swapping farce: two courts of mixed doubles, with balls bouncing in every direction.
Arnold is a theater director (Owen Wilson), Delta is his wife and lead actress (Kathryn Hahn), Joshua is the playwright (Will Forte), Seth is the silver-fox actor (Rhys Ifans), and Jane is the furious therapist (Jennifer Aniston) who treats half the cast. As we go further down the lineup, the script grows wackier: Arnold has a fetish for charity and gets off on sending call girls home with five-figure tips. One of them is Izzy (Imogen Poots), who becomes an actress, and—much to the director’s chagrin—everyone can see that she’s perfect for the last open part in the play: the call girl.
A judge and a detective get involved as the seventh and eighth wheels, because this is that type of movie—the type of comedy they might’ve made in the ’30s, when detectives and judges were always walking into farcical scenes at the wrong time. So people get knocked down. They get punched out. They get carried off their feet by wisecracking police officers. They hide in racks of shirts inside department stores. They wear fake mustaches. They do everything short of invoking the spirit of Cary Grant. And if you look far enough into the background, you just might see Bogdanovich doing that, too.
He’s dealing with many of the same ideas Swanberg is: Both movies consider the rejuvenating force of the temptations bred by the life you lead away from your partner. But Bogdanovich has attached those ideas to a genre that’s actually capable of entertaining us. His jokes may sometimes be as old as he is—like when he has Wilson juggling his ladies’ calls across multiple phones—but the upside there is that Bogdanovich tells them with a master’s rhythm. He’s stuck in his own little screwball world, but he speaks the language well.
Almost every article written about Mistress America, the latest Noah Baumbach comedy, uses the word “screwball” somewhere. That’s understandable: Brooke (the aforementioned Gerwig, who co-writes, as she did on Frances Ha) is the type of character you’d expect to find in a Peter Bogdanovich movie. She’s a 30-year-old who describes herself as being “in her twenties.” She lives in Times Square. When she meets Tracy (Lola Kirke), her soon-to-be-stepsister, she drops a line that Katherine Hepburn would have trouble selling: “You got a honey?” But that affectation isn’t the product of the movie, as it is with Bogdanovich. Here, it’s actually the character: Brooke thinks she’s living in a bubbly comedy. What Mistress is concerned with is the process by which she learns that she’s not.
Anyway, Tracy doesn’t have a honey—the boy she likes at her university has started dating an irritable shrew —so she takes to Brooke instead. The movie is told in two acts: first night, then day. The first half has Brooke playing big sis to Tracy by taking her out and deigning to let her crash on the couch. Tracy, a bit less directionless than Brooke realizes, wants into her school’s lit society, and starts crafting Brooke’s Fitzgeraldian bombast into material for her next story.
Then daytime arrives. Baumbach conspires, via plot machinations so convoluted that they almost warp the screen, to get Brooke, Tracy, Tracy’s crush, his girlfriend, Brooke’s ex, and his new girlfriend—who herself stole an idea for a successful company from Brooke—into the same home for the film’s second half. The walls are pure white, the sun comes in overblown through glass doors … and all the night’s secrets come out in the light, with Baumbach’s deceptively intricate framing—characters are always shifting to align with or against other characters physically—slowly revealing the teams that are forming. So whenever the odds are stacked high against one individual, the compositions themselves become a punchline.
What results is the kind of criss-crossing farce that Funny That Way aspires to be—only here you can’t see the cobwebs hanging off of the corners. Baumbach and Gerwig’s script excavates the skeletons, and it screws the balls, and it does it all without sacrificing characterization, or regional specificity, or flights of verbal fancy, or any of the other things that the other two movies are so desperately missing. Swanberg’s picture is rather shoddily constructed. Bogdanovich’s is solid as oak, but creaks with every move. And Baumbach’s? Just right.
DIGGING FOR FIRE. RATED R. OPENING AT THE KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA ON FRI 8.28. ALSO AVAILABLE ON VOD PLATFORMS.
SHE’S FUNNY THAT WAY. RATED R. PLAYING AT HOLLYWOOD HITS THEATRE. 7 HUTCHINSON DR., DANVERS. ALSO AVAILABLE ON VOD PLATFORMS.
MISTRESS AMERICA. RATED R. NOW PLAYING AT COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, AND AMC BOSTON COMMONS.