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the art of self-effacement
on May 11, 2007
How refreshing it is to encounter an art house, "independent" film that doesn't rely on "quirkiness," "eclecticism" or "eccentricity" to impress the viewer with its "cleverness." Instead, "Diggers" is a realistic slice-of-life drama that plays it straight with its audience, viewing both its characters and their situations without cynicism or irony.
Set in 1976, "Diggers" focuses on four young men leading lives of quiet desperation, working as independent clam diggers on Long Island Sound. All four have pretty much accepted the fate life has handed them, although one, a talented photographer named Hunt (Paul Rudd), dreams vaguely of one day starting a new life away from his family home and business, if only he can muster enough personal courage and initiative to actually make the move. His married buddy, Lozo (Ken Marino, who also wrote the screenplay), is more firmly tied down to the area by the responsibilities he has as husband and father to an ever-expanding brood of undisciplined children. The remainder of the quartet consists of Jack (Ron Eldard), a devil-may-care womanizer, who becomes romantically involved with Hunt's thirty-six year old divorced sister, Gina (Maura Tierney); and Cons (Josh Hamilton), a perpetually stoned pseudo-hippie philosopher who, of all the characters, seems most in tune with the drug culture loopiness of the period in which the movie is set. In addition to Gina, the women in their lives include Lozo's levelheaded but eternally frustrated wife, Julie (Sarah Paulson), and Zoe (Lauren Ambrose from "Six Feet Under"), a pretty young woman from Manhattan who has a brief summertime flirtation with Hunt.
Written by Marino and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, "Diggers" is so low-keyed in its attitude and tone that it may feel to some viewers as if nothing much really happens in the film. Yet, in many ways, this is the major selling-point of the movie - that it doesn't feel obligated to make big dramatic gestures to unravel its characters or maintain our interest. Marino and Dieckmann have a nice feel for the rhythms of life, as everyday, casual moments are given equal weight with major, life-altering events - the death of a parent, the announcement of a pregnancy, the final farewell to a dearly departed.
If there is a flaw in the film, it is that the movie is simply too short (a mere 89 minutes) to allow for the kind of plot expansion and probing character development we rightfully expect from a work of this sort. In fact, due primarily to the time constraints, two of the buddies, Jack and Cons, are reduced to little more than minor characters in the overall fabric of the story. An additional half hour or so in the running time would have gone a long way towards correcting that problem. As compensation, the director exploits to the full the bucolic richness of the unfamiliar setting, and captures the laid-back quality of an era in which the youthful idealism of an earlier time has all but evaporated in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. The movie also touches on the threat of creeping globalization as these family-run clam-digging operations are beginning to be squeezed out of business by an impersonal conglomeration that has recently moved into the area. Through Lozo's character, in particular, the movie effectively dramatizes the stress and strain working-class couples and families go through when they are living literally paycheck to paycheck, along with the compromises they are forced to make just to keep their heads above water.
Rudd, who has long been underrated as an actor, provides a beautifully understated performance as the soul-searching Hunt, and he is superbly abetted by the other members of the cast.
More anecdote than full-fledged narrative, "Diggers" has the benefit of not taking itself or its characters too seriously. It presents its story in a naturalistic, matter-of-fact manner, without fanfare and fuss and devoid of high-minded sermons or heavy-breathing lectures. "Diggers" is the very definition of self-effacing filmmaking.