2006Director: Katherine Dieckmann
Cast: Ken Marino, Paul Rudd, Maura Tierney
aul Rudd remains one of cinema’s most reliable and underappreciated actors, long overdue for a lead role and mercifully deserving of notoriety beyond his second billing to Julia Roberts in her Broadway debut. Equally adept in drama, comedy and nearly every hybrid in between, he can seamlessly switch from cocky misogynist (Anchorman, Wet Hot American Summer) to Nietzsche-reading bohemian (Clueless), from aw-shucks gay companion (The Object of My Affection) to unflinching homophobe (the play Bash) to emasculated nerd (The Shape of Things). In the new film Diggers, he brings a sincerity and convincing gruffness to his role of Hunt, the central figure in a quartet of clam digging buddies including womanizer Jack (Ron Eldard), blithe drug dealer Cons (Josh Hamilton), and short-fuse family man Lozo (Ken Marino, who also wrote the screenplay).
Despite its generic title (even if it is some sort of half-baked metaphor), Diggers unwinds into quite the lovely chamber piece over the course of its not-quite hour-and-a-half running time. Set in the 1970s, ostensibly to communicate some clamming border wars and profit shortage, the film feels inescapably modern both in tone and appearance. Even numerous shots of Gerald Ford on the television and a seemingly endless series of muttonchops cannot provide a convincing illusion of thirty years past. But no matter; this simple, gentle story of small-town life itself has little to say about period, concerning itself more with the trials and underlying humanism of a close-knit Long Island community. The loss of one of the town’s own provides the plot’s catalyst. Before the opening credits finish flashing, Hunt and sister Gina (Maura Tierney) stand mechanically greeting friends at a local funeral hall following their father’s death. The dreamer Hunt wrestles with his ambivalent feelings about his clam digger father who would not look—nor allow Hunt to look—beyond their modest profession, while the lonely Gina laments the fact that she must now live alone.
To distract themselves from processing any emotion, the two siblings quickly ensnare respective companions. Hunt takes up with flashy urbanite Zoey (Lauren Ambrose), on vacation for the summer and curious to commingle with the working-class crowd, while Gina makes man-whore Jack her on-call boy toy. In an insightful juxtaposition, Marino and director Katherine Dieckmann track these two sets of relationships against one another, contrasting the hook-up of foreigner Zoey and local Hunt with the near incestuousness of Gina sleeping with her brother’s life-long friends. At least one of the relationships is doomed, but the emphasis does not lie with the success-failure ratio. Rather, the romances serve as two signposts concerning the emotional and physical gaps that nearly every one of the film’s characters suffer, and in Hunt’s case, the paradoxical needs to relate to others and then retract to himself.
The lazy charm and agreeable dissatisfaction native to this Long Island batch of personalities prove a cumulative effect as the film progresses. The characters rarely address anyone else by name and, in so doing, form a convincingly insular and familiar community. Dieckmann draws a clear border between the characters and audience, allowing spectators from the outside-in a fascinating peek at this exclusive band of rough-hewn townies. While several of the scenes lack a certain arc to them, clearly this is the point: the film becomes a slice of a slice of life. With such a naturalistic foundation, Diggers sporadically seems so slight one wonders whether it might drift right off of the screen. Furthermore, Marino the screenwriter’s principal attempts to rein the film back into a greater significance, namely Hunt’s proclivity for photography and dreams of a life beyond the Long Island shoreline (or at least west of it), come straight from the screenwriting cliché handbook. In these moments, Diggers battles itself regarding the attitude it bestows upon its earnest, small-time clam diggers: are they a lovable band of local heroes or poster children for blue-collar hopelessness, tragically unaware of their smallness? In any case, the joy lies with the journey itself: in each succeeding scene, Dieckmann masterfully peels away layer after layer of character until arriving at only the raw human nerves left over.
Not content to overemphasize any one plotline, Marino and Dieckmann demonstrate how each and every character fills one small piece of this Long Island corner’s larger mosaic. Even when Diggers is its most sprawling, Rudd anchors it with his effortless work as the conflicted everyman Hunt, and the rest of the cast follow his exemplary lead. Although no one in the exceptional ensemble hits a false note, Marino shrewdly saves the showiest part for himself. As the beefy, temperamental father of four literally rubbing coins together in his kitchen, Marino’s Lozo becomes affably unhinged antihero. With a fifth child on the way and lacking enough money to provide for the first four, Lozo rejects his wife Julie’s (Sarah Paulson) suggestion of an abortion and, despite his pride, sacrifices himself to the wolves by applying to a commercial clam-digging enterprise. Lozo and Julie’s tumultuous, poignant marriage evolves surprisingly into the heart of a film finally content to be a rumination instead of a definitive conclusion about this small group of disheartened seafarers.
Though the film never transcends its aspirations as mildly touching portraiture, its nonchalant pleasures result in an under-the-radar gem, the type of unpretentious independent film increasingly rare since Sundance became an international party destination. With over a half-an-hour of deleted scenes on the DVD, Diggers may have been something even greater, but ninety minutes of enchanting nuance and endearing understatement is more than enough these days.
Diggers is now available on DVD.
By: Mike D’Alessandro
Published on: 2007-06-29