- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

All together now: It’s hard out there for a clam digger. There have been less compelling premises for a movie, although none immediately springs to mind.

Luckily, “Diggers” isn’t a documentary; in fact, it’s quite the likable, quasi-serious guys’ comedy. If this were 1986, “Diggers” would be a Ron Howard movie called “Gung Ho,” and we’d be lamenting the decline of the American automobile industry while pondering accommodation with our soon-to-be-dominant Japanese overlords.

Come to think of it, if this were 1986, I’d still be puttering around the back channels of my marshy little saltwater village outside of Atlantic City, where a lot of guys looked pretty much like the principal foursome of “Diggers.”

“Diggers” is about a group of clammers — I reached for the pull-cord of an outboard motor the first time I tried to drive after watching it — economically threatened by a big dredging company that’s buying up all the exploitable clam beds. More than that, though, it’s a cousin of Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls” (1996); it’s about not-yet-grown men and everything that vexes them — women, kin, babies and all the other baggage of responsible adulthood that might incite a good bar fight.

Set on Long Island during the summer of ‘76, none of the characters in “Diggers” seems to care much about bicentennial celebrations or presidential elections (the Ford-Carter debates flicker on television screens, ignored). Main character Hunt (Paul Rudd, in porkpie hat, beard and badly in need of a shower) has never taken the hour’s drive to see Manhattan. These are stereotypical proud locals: not self-aware enough to qualify as insular, and yet restless, vaguely malcontented.

One morning, Hunt motors down the waterway, an hour late, to meet his father, also a digger. The old man’s scow is empty: an apparent heart attack, we learn. Could Hunt have saved him had he shown up on time? Hunt will have to live with that uncertainty.

Mr. Rudd, an amiable character actor best known recently for comedic roles in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman,” plays Hunt, the movie’s center of gravity, with a pleasing balance of irony and sobriety. He’s complemented by Ron Eldard (“Sleepers”) as Jack, the local skirt-chaser; Josh Hamilton as Cons, the local pot dealer and pseudo-philosopher; and Ken Marino, a native Long Islander who penned the script and plays Frankie, a man with four young children, a saintly wife (Sarah Paulson) and a volcanic temper.

“Diggers” closely observes its characters with a sympathetic eye and a heartfelt sense of humor. With their mother long dead, Hunt’s concern for his older sister, Gina (“ER’s” Maura Tierney) is both admirable and unnecessary: A recent divorcee, Gina’s barely holding things together, and yet — remember, we’re in the mid-‘70s — she’s feeling the flush of independence as well as a zeitgeist that treats female orgasm like a natural right.

Frankie, too, feels like a three-dimensional human. He’s a lout, a devoted husband, a whiskey shooter, a loving father. The thing that most gnaws at him — the cause and symptom of his foulmouthed machismo — is his family’s shaky finances. Can he provide for the children who, in his words, “drive me bananas”?

For all its poignancy and note-perfect visual detail, “Diggers” too often feels contrived. Hunt woos an interloper from the city (Lauren Ambrose) with a plate of clams, a side of cocktail sauce and repartee that’s as canned as any sweet-nothing Rocky ever whispered into Adrian’s ear. And, when Hunt warns his sister away from playboy Jack by saying, “He is my friend; that’s how I know he’s a scumbag,” my cliche-detector buzzed like an airport security wand.

And yet, for the same reason we laugh at Frankie’s advice to a son who wants to see “Jaws” — save your money, the shark blows up — one shouldn’t necessarily hold predictability against “Diggers.”

If reality is a mollusk, then predictability, sometimes, is the melted butter we dip it into.

**1/2

TITLE: “Diggers”

RATING: R (Profanity, drug use, sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Katherine Dieckmann. Written by Ken Marino. Cinematography by Michael McDonough. Original music by David Mansfield.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.diggersmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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