If you're a fan of mild-mannered dramedies about small-town life, you could do a lot worse than Diggers. Scripted by television actor Ken Marino -- he also plays the main dramatic role and plays it well -- the film centers on the trials and tribulations of a community of blue-collar clam-diggers in mid-70s Long Island. There's a big corporate entity that is moving in on the island and intends to squeeze the locals out of the clam business once and for all. Some of them, like Hunt (Paul Rudd) are thinking of shaking up their lives, trying their luck in the big city and starting new relationships, while others like Lozo (Marino) are reluctant to embrace any kind of change, small or large. Lozo is such a traditionalist, in fact, that his old-fashioned view of the world ends up setting the stage for the film's most effective scene, a confrontation with his wife over her desire to end a pregnancy she doesn't want. Women's rights and Jaws references -- this is a film 70s-lovers can really warm to.
Maura Tierney, most known from TV's ER, plays Gina, the central female character. She's a sister to Hunt and love interest to a local do-nothing called Jack (Ron Eldard) and is a general anchor-character of the story -- one that all the other characters sort of swirl around. In fact, one of the things Diggers usually does well is to make most of the significant characters seem like they are the central character whenever its time for their story to kick into gear. A lot of thought clearly went into the film's structuring, which is refreshing. The mixture of comedy and drama is a little more uncertain, though -- some scenes feel like the script said 'comedic hijinks ensue at this point' and the actors sort of had to wing it. The comedy gets a little too physical for my taste. Marino has certainly shown here that he has the chops to write a real story with real dramatic and comedic moments, and the film would have benefitted by leaving some of the artificial comedy on the cutting room floor.
The film also sets up a thread of corporate crook vs. little guy, but it doesn't really follow this through with any kind of insightful observations. There's an interesting scene in which Lozo, under intense pressure from his family, breaks down and goes to the headquarters of the corporate interloper to pick up a job application, but there's very little in terms of conversation between characters to round out this aspect of the film. It's just sort of accepted that the big corporate bad guy has come to town to destroy everything that small-town people hold dear, and everyone is going to have to react to it in their own way. Instead of doing the heavy lifting of writing dialogue to express the character's thoughts on this topic, director Katherine Dieckmann is more often content to just set up shots of people moping in their beer or commiserating with their friends at a family function. It seems like we've seen this kind of thing many times before, so something a little fresher would have been nice.
There's a key romance in the film, between Hunt and Zoey (Lauren Ambrose) but their scenes are curiously truncated and Ambrose ends up barely playing a supporting role in the film. From my vantage point, this is by far the film's biggest flaw, since Ambrose is an intriguing, up-and-coming young actress and should be given as much screen time as she can possibly handle in an ensemble film like this. To choose her storyline as the one to murder in the edit room seems like an incredibly odd choice. In fairness to the filmmakers, however, I understand that her limited presence makes sense in the context of the story, but there are still ways to work around things like that. Also, the fact that Ambrose was a no-show at the film's press junket makes me wonder if maybe she was the last to know that her character would get such short shrift in the final cut. If there's ever an extended DVD of Diggers, the first order of business should be examining this issue.
Speaking of the DVD, it's coming a little sooner than you might think -- Tuesday. Diggers is, in many ways, the first real test-case for a day-date movie. Steven Soderbergh's Bubble doesn't really count because the entire point of that film was its much-touted day-date angle -- there was little substance to judge apart from that. Diggers, which was also a Mark Cuban/HDNet production, went the exact opposite direction, not publicizing its lack of a theatrical-DVD window, so that even critics like myself went into the film having no clue that only a couple of weeks later there would be a DVD on store shelves. I'm still of the opinion that having a window is preferable to having no window, for a variety of reasons I'm not going to get into here, but I will say that Diggers is itself a good argument for the notion that 'instant DVD' doesn't necessarily have to have the same negative connotation as 'straight-to-DVD' and can co-exist with a theatrical release, like the limited one this film is having.