‘Digging for Fire’
Director:
Joe Swanberg
Stars: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

Microbudget god Joe Swanberg works with names now, but don’t get the wrong idea. Ditto that he now sometimes uses tripods. His not-quite-sell-out films — “Drinking Buddies,” “Happy Christmas,” the new “Digging for Fire” — may look (sometimes, not always) handsome and feature very basic, very white people problem indie plots. But there’s still a shagginess. He’s working within the system to both embrace cliches and subvert them, at least with a quietly radical form. A typical scene in “Digging for Fire” finds Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson, as marrieds with a young kid (played by Swanberg’s own young kid, Jude), flirtatiously bantering. What they’re talking about is pure exposition and they’re contained in a clean widescreen shot, but their exchange is playful, off-the-cuff. They don’t sound too different from the sometimes painfully self-aware chatter seen in the likes of “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”

There are reams of moments like those in “Digging for Fire,” and at its best Swanberg has encouraged a name cast — a seriously large name cast, worthy of three Woody Allen films, where just about every actor is familiar if not famous — to cut loose over a plot that in most indies would be all you get. The story finds DeWitt and Johnson’s Lee and Tim shacking up in a gorgeous, sprawling Hollywood Hills manse, which belongs to one of Lee’s yoga clients. They quickly separate: Lee to hang with a friend (Melanie Lynskey), Tim to stay back and do the taxes. Instead Tim invites over all of his bros (including Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Sam Rockwell, plus tag-alongs Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick) for some hedonistic bro time. 

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Lee too winds up on her own misadventures, and eventually gets no less than Orlando Bloom, as a babish chef, dangled in front of her. Tim too finds himself spending too much quality time with Larson’s free spirit. We’re thus set up for an examination of not so much infidelity as the prison of marriage-with-kid(s), made by a filmmaker who’s never been afraid to bare his anxieties (and often much more than that) onscreen. But with all the improv-y caterwauling eating up an already brief running time, Swanberg gets almost no time to explore it with any real depth. What should be a knotty and specific airing of grievances becomes a simple, painfully simple, lesson on why you definitely should not stray from marriage. 

Of course, all the time-killing with what appears to be all of Swanberg’s famous buds — and did I not mention the quickie walk-ons from Jenny Slate, Timothy Simons, Ron Livingston, Jane Adams, Judith Light and Sam Goddamned Elliott? — does result in inspired ad-libbing. The idea seems to be to have fun but with a solid foundation of story that didn’t always need attending to. And the fun times are meant to be a reflection of the life once-swinging parents have to leave behind for maturity and responsibility. But the actual insights into this are too few and made worse by a painfully on-the-nose metaphor, in which Tim becomes obsessed with digging up a skeleton on the property that he believes may have been a murder. Not only is it obvious but it’s also weirdly retrograde, suggesting that rather than dig up their anxieties, Tim and Lee should just leave well alone and pretend all’s OK. Swanberg’s movies, to their credit, usually do the opposite.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge