If someone were to say "clam digger" to you, you'd probably imagine someone with a shovel and a pail, strolling along the seaside with his pant cuffs folded way up high. The bittersweet indie film Diggers corrects that perception, revealing how Long Island's self-employed clam diggers would labor aboard skiffs in shallow waters, sifting for shellfish with long, heavy tools called "rakes."
Although it looks like a profession unchanged in centuries, the film reveals that the diggers seldom have the chance to ply their trade. Directed by Katherine Dieckmann, Diggers takes place in 1976, when a big fishing concern monopolizes the waters, in a vivid example of a Wal-Mart-style corporate takeover of small-town America. A crusty old clam digger expires in an early scene, setting an elegiac tone for the rest of the film, which alternates between feeling deeply lived-in and self-consciously artificial.
The deceased digger's son, Hunt (Paul Rudd), finds himself even more reluctant to follow in his father's footsteps, despite his fondness for photography. His hometown is clearly verging on its last gasp, but Hunt uses concern for his older, divorced sister, Gina (Maura Tierney, pushing the "Lon Guy-land" accent), as a pretext to stick around.
Hunt's three buddies fit cinematic types a bit neatly. There's Jack (Ron Eldard), a hunky ladies' man who begins looking in on Gina just as she reads The Hite Report on sexuality. Cons (Josh Hamilton) provides a source of hippie-dippy laughs as well as marijuana and other pharmaceuticals, which he freely samples. Hot-headed Frankie (Ken Marino) swears with abandon in front of his countless kids and long-suffering wife ("Studio 60's" Sarah Paulson) as financial pressures squeeze their household.
Marino, one of the founders of the comedy troupe "The State," wrote Diggers' screenplay partly as a tribute to his hometown and his family's one-time profession. He shows more subtlety as a writer than as an actor, making Frankie such an overbearing jerk, prone to showy, De Niro-style tantrums, that it's a wonder anyone can tolerate his company. Marino's not the only one who draws attention to his own performing. The cast of familiar TV and indie-film actors occasionally seem to be playing tourist in their blue-collar setting, rather than disappearing into their roles.
Fortunately Rudd anchors the film and affirms his skills as one of the most compelling under-actors in current film. Like Peter Sarsgaard, he has a sensitive yet self-contained quality that's nearly opaque, yet hints at reserves of feeling. Rather than showboat through a big scene, like Hunt's tender monologue to the urn containing his father's ashes, Rudd remains conversational rather than histrionic. As a flirtatious beauty from New York, Lauren Ambrose's vivid emotional transparency complements Rudd's work perfectly. The couple conveys both short-term chemistry and compatibility problems to come.
When Hunt teaches Zoey (Ambrose) how to eat clams at the local bar, Diggers begins breathing comfortably, as if director Dieckmann finally found the laid-back tone the film was looking for. Dieckmann perceptively captures details of the Me decade, like the way the 1976 presidential election (frequently visible on background TV screens) seemed only to anticipate the social malaise to come.
Diggers even feels like an affectionate throwback to the films of the 1970s, with its easy advocacy of casual sex and recreational drug use. "It was a business selling pleasure to you," quips pot-peddling Cons at one point. Diggers never betrays the kind of judgmental streak that would emerge in the 1980s due to AIDS and "Just Say No."
Nevertheless, Dieckmann and Marino still mourn the passing of an honorable profession, and even though the film ends with a gesture of rebellion, it harbors no sentimental illusions. Diggers suggests that the old ways are gone and won't be coming back, no matter how deeply one digs for them.