I forgot MGM still made movies in the 1990s. The aura of bankruptcy and failure has surrounded Leo for so long… it’s distracting. I remember my Diggstown laserdisc sleeve. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve seen the movie. It’s still a great time and I’m left, as I always was when finishing it, perplexed. How did James Woods not have a successful film career as a leading man? Diggstown might have even his last major lead role.
Diggstown has a large cast–figure twenty recognizable cast members–and the casting is brilliant. It might have been the first movie I ever saw Oliver Platt in. The film’s broken up into three parts (not the acts, however). The prison prologue, the set-up, then the long boxing sequence (Louis Gossett Jr. fighting ten guys, which is why the cast is so large). Each section feels different, with Woods owning the prologue, but Platt getting the most attention in the opening of the set-up. It’s a bombastic role and Platt’s perfect for it. There isn’t a bad performance in the entire film (Ritchie’s a fine director of actors), but the acting from Platt, Woods and Gossett is just amazing. Each one of them turn in singular performances–so it’s unfortunate Diggstown doesn’t offer them much more to do.
The film’s funny, endearing and constantly enjoyable, but there’s a certain lack of depth to it. There’s nuance in the film–when Gossett and Woods meet up at the beginning, they’re having an intricately guarded conversation, combining the acting, the direction and the editing. But the nuance doesn’t carry over to the film. It has a simple close. There isn’t much opportunity for a deeper story here, but there’s some (the flirtation between Woods and Heather Graham evaporates as the boxing part of the film begins).
Instead, it’s just a good time, with a great, self-aware performance from Bruce Dern. I’m not always a fan, but when Dern’s on, he’s really on. The supporting cast–John Short, Duane Davis, even Michael DeLorenzo–has some standouts as well.
Diggstown is a well put together film–Ritchie doesn’t have a single unsure directorial moment, every move is confident–and it makes Diggstown one of the finer junior members of the era’s films. Diggstown is a contained, inclusive filmic narrative–the viewer isn’t supposed to engage with Woods as a celebrity, only his performance. There’s even a “Roots” reference and, even if it was supposed to be an in-joke with Gossett, it doesn’t come off as one.
Before I finish up, I need to mention James Newton Howard’s score. The score’s great, really changing pace as the film does–not only does Diggstown have those twenty or so characters for the viewer to remember, it has a lot of locations too–Howard keeps up with everything, developing the score inline with the narrative.
On one hand, I wish Diggstown had a little more depth–the film has room for it, Ritchie and the cast can certainly handle it, but maybe not… It’s a solid, smart, well-made comedy. I remember when I first saw it, on videotape, I couldn’t wait to see what Woods and Platt did next. Platt did well enough, Woods provided a frequent disappointment. Even this time through, sixteen years after it came out, it’s hard not to be excited at the talent on display in the film.
Directed by Michael Ritchie; screenplay by Steven McKay, based on a novel by Leonard Wise; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Stephen Hendrickson; produced by Robert Schaffel; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.
Starring James Woods (Gabriel Caine), Louis Gossett Jr. (Roy Palmer), Bruce Dern (John Gillon), Oliver Platt (Fitz), Heather Graham (Emily Forrester), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Wolf Forrester), Thomas Wilson Brown (Robby Gillon), Duane Davis (Hambone Busby), David Fresco (Fish) and Willie Green (Hammerhead Hagan).