American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In the second scene in Joe Swanberg's latest film, "Digging for Fire," public school teacher and husband/father Tim (Jake Johnson, who also co-wrote the script with Swanberg) discovers a rusty gun and a bone in a hill outside the house where he and his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) are vacationing. Tim tells his wife excitedly, "Now my brain thinks there are twenty bodies here!" Lee is less than enthused. Besides, it's not their hill out there. You can't just dig up somebody else's hill.
By the time Tim finds the gun and the bone, the ultimate story, what the film is really about, in other words, has been set up with dispatch. Swanberg and Johnson do not "bury the lede." They foreground it. The gun and bone discovery is the excuse to tell a story about marriage vs. independence, impending mortality, and existential questions like, "What do I want in life? What does my life mean? Is this all there is?" Maybe the gun and the bone will be too obvious a device to some, but plot devices like that are often really useful. Besides, "Digging for Fire" is an often hilarious film, a kooky ensemble drama filled with specific and funny performances from a host of stars who stroll into the action from the side, do their thing, and then get out.
In many ways, "Digging for Fire" is reminiscent of Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," a similar story about a sedate couple (played by Allen and Diane Keaton) who become convinced that their next-door neighbor has murdered his wife. Keaton's character re-directs her baseless anxiety about her marriage into trying to solve the mystery: she breaks into apartments, goes on "stakeouts," says things to her husband like, "I'm going to bust this case wide open!", all as he looks on thinking she has lost her mind. "Digging for Fire" has the same obvious structure and screwball mood. It's strangely refreshing to watch a film that is not worried about nuance. There's plenty of nuance in the issues the film explores (not to mention in all of the performances), but without the gun and the bone there might not be the same sense of urgency and absurdity.
What really matters is not the "whodunit" of the gun and the bone. What matters is the marriage of Tim and Lee. The marriage is not exactly on the rocks but they have stopped connecting. Lee has taken on a Mommy role with her husband. Her parents (Judith Light and Sam Elliott) want to foot the bill for an expensive preschool and Tim feels emasculated. Meanwhile, Lee reads a book called "The Passionate Marriage" in secret (the book becomes a running joke throughout the film), and has emotional conversations about life with various Uber drivers.