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Screen » Film

Has Jake Johnson Found His Talent?

By doing less in Digging For Fire, Johnson does great

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Jake Johnson has been simmering just under Hollywood's A-list. He certainly has his fan base, and there is a familiarity (oh, that guy!), but he doesn't yet command a summer hit.

Like, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seemingly appeared in every cool kid movie for a decade before finally breaking into public knowledge as a leading man, Johnson also has become a certain zelig, with small roles in goofy films like 21 Jump Street and Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (and had a co-star part in the shameful Let's Be Cops, but let's be gracious and agree to not mention that film again; um, 18 on Rotten Tomatoes). He does play a mainstay in Fox's "New Girl," and the lead in the wonderful 2012 sci-fi mumblecore film Safety Not Guaranteed, and inspired the internet sensation "Drunk History" through an intoxicated conversation he had trying to explain Otis Redding's death, and starred in the first episode as Aaron Burr. Yet, Johnson is not yet a marquee actor—and, Digging for Fire, which he co-wrote and stars in, probably won't be his breakout movie, but is likely to be looked back at as a gem and a stepping stone toward that fame.

Johnson sits just on the inside line of ruggedly handsome, looking more ordinary than show-stopping extraordinary, and that is perhaps his curse right now, as he blends into the landscape. But it's also a blessing, as it gives him an ability to chameleon into a diversity of characters.

Largely billed as a comedian, Johnson has cited childhood favorites Chicago's Second City stars like John Belushi and Chris Farley as heroes, but in Digging For Fire there are no setups or punchlines or pratfalls. Instead, the movie unfolds like an Alfred Hitchcock classic, skating along the line between ordinary domestic life and murderous innuendo.

It starts with a couple and their young boy moving into a Hollywood hills mansion. There is some unspecified tension or disappointment in their decade-old marriage, and they are house-sitting for an unspecified movie star. When walking on the property, Johnson's character Tim discovers a human bone and a rusty gun. Cleverly, that mystery just smolders as Tim is left alone for a weekend—and instead of taking the time to organize his taxes, like his wife has requested, invites friends over to drink, smoke weed, and dig for more bones.

The writing and script is wonderful; deceptively easy-going dialogue that, at first, does not seem like much more than original people talking about their lives. But that dialogue is cleverly masking desires and disappointments. It follows more of the conventional and mainstream side of mumblecore, which celebrates ordinariness and awkwardness; instead, the dialogue simply seems natural, yet manages to create a profound tension throughout the story.

In one scene, a woman picks up Tim's wife from a nice house. "Is that your home," she asks innocently (it is not; it's her mom's), and the conversation leads to a discussion tinged with disappointment and shame as each character plainly talks about her own current living situation. These are simple, clever touches, but with the characters most often talking at cross-purposes and more invested in their own cares, that subtle self-interest drives a plot that consistently feels dangerously unresolved.

Even the ending, lightly touched with symbolism, is more an implied resolution than a defined conclusion—and it is that subtleness that is the best clue and promise for Johnson's future. He holds rapt attention without needing to resort to any big explosions or squealing tire car chases (see, Let's Be Cops), and simply does a great job writing a script, slowly unfolding a plot, and providing a character that seems as familiar as your next door neighbor.

Digging for Fire

Director Joe Swanberg

Opens Friday

Tin Pan Theater

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