'Diggers' is a tragicomic tale of a dying industry
By coincidence, two independent films about guys in their 30s and set on the eastern end of Long Island are opening at the Kendall today. One of them, "Sing Now or Forever Hold Your Peace " (see review on D8) is about singing yuppies in East Hampton . "Diggers ," by contrast, is about burned-out clam diggers in Montauk . It's not only the better of the two, it's the funnier, in a bedraggled, clear-eyed way befitting men who know their livelihood is on life support.
Katherine Dieckmann's film takes place in late 1976 , as a corporate behemoth named South Shell is buying up water rights and restricting the local clammers to areas long played out. The four friends who are trying to keep the old ways going are Hunt (Paul Rudd ), who'd never admit he's a gifted photographer; ladies' man Jack (Ron Eldard ); stoner philosopher Cons (Josh Hamilton ); and Lozo (screenwriter Ken Marino ), who's married with five kids and another on the way.
"Diggers" isn't sentimental about these men or their way of life. Their greeting of choice is an upraised middle finger, and when Hunt's cantankerous father (Scott Sowers ) dies of heart failure out on the flats, Dieckmann films it obliquely, with a minimum of fuss. The old man is buried in his wedding suit and his waders, and he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.
The filmmakers have great fun with the trappings of the time period, from a diner waitress reading "The Hite Report " to Lozo's young son begging to see "Jaws " ("The shark gets blown up at the end," his father snaps . "There, you saw it . ") to the Jordache jeans on a chic young Manhattanite named Zoe (Lauren Ambrose of "Six Feet Under ") with whom Hunt silently flirts whenever he runs his boat past her parents' dock.
Also particular to this time and place is the smell of cannabis-infused fatalism. The characters get high to avoid thinking about the obvious -- everyone except Cons; pot just makes him more engaged -- but also because it's 1976 and they're on Long Island and they're bored. "Diggers" is acrid with all sorts of fumes: oil and bilge water, bog-funk and fish guts, the smoldering tinder of class resentment. Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" is right here, in these houses and on these boats, and the only way to deal with it is to laugh, smoke a joint, have sex, and not think about tomorrow.
That includes some of the women, but not all. After her father's death, Hunt's sister Gina (Maura Tierney ) is delighted to discover she no longer has to play the good daughter and randily sets her sights on one of the men. Lozo's wife (Sarah Paulson ), meanwhile, finds herself increasingly trapped by motherhood and her husband's fading career. "Diggers" has a good amount of desperate, foul-mouthed fun with this couple and their kids, and Marino's script doesn't sugar coat their predicament until he absolutely has to.
But he has to, just as Hunt's artistic ambitions and his romance with Zoe have to come to some kind of closure. The movie is strong and holding as long as it's shambling about in the Montauk dusk; when Dieckmann has to bring things to a resolution, "Diggers" turns ordinary -- sweet, but you've seen it many times before. Until then it's a tragicomedy of entropy, a film that wonders what happens to men when they can't do the only thing they know how to.