'Diamond Men': A Gritty Setting's Ring of Truth
Friday, September 7, 2001
Arriving four days after Labor Day, "Diamond Men" can't quite be said to save the summer. Let's settle for this: It gets the fall off to a great start.
Genuine, amusing and, best of all, humanly scaled and humanely oriented, this little independent sweetheart follows two of the most prosaic men on Earth toward the rest of their lives, which will be happy or bitter, depending.
When I tell you that there's a jewel robbery, that it's set against the diamond trade, that much of the action transpires in a brothel, you'll probably imagine a certain kind of movie. Paris, cosmopolitans named Nicky in black turtlenecks cat-walking on the high gutters pursued by some Inspector LeGrand or DePuy, clever repartee, beautiful women, the glitter of brooches and tiaras and necklaces.
This is not that movie. In fact, here's an indication of how far this movie is from that one: The brothel in "Diamond Men" is in Altoona, Pa.
The diamond men of the title roam the highways of central Pennsylvania in a clunky Lincoln Town Car, locked in an orbit that encompasses every small town that hasn't yet been contaminated by a mall. They represent a "line" the goods of a New York jewelry manufacturer and their ports of call are the old-style Main Street jewelry stores where they know everybody. They know how to sell but they also know when not to sell; they know how to maintain a relationship that's more than a hustle and may even be a friendship.
Or at least one of them does. That's Eddie Miller, played with fierce, closely held dignity by Robert Forster. You may remember him from his '60s movie star days ("Reflections in a Golden Eye," "Medium Cool") and from his quick decline thereafter, his return from oblivion in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown." Wherever he went when he disappeared, he didn't forget how to act, and it might be said also that of all the men of his acting generation, he's aged the best, even if that ruler-straight hairline suggests polyester reforestation.
The other one, Bobby Walker (played by Donnie Wahlberg, older brother of the star of today's big opener, "Rock Star"), is just learning. It's a mentor-mentee thing, which was an American staple until, roughly, 1968.
How long has it been since an American movie has been about teaching? Where the wisdom of the older, saltier guy hasn't been revealed to disguise pathology or corruption or both? But "Diamond Men" is exactly about that: how a smart, disciplined professional salesman teaches a wild kid the ropes.
Writer-director Daniel M. Cohen, who hails from three generations of traveling diamond men, enters this culture with respect, which gives the movie its sense of freshness. He sees the salesman not as a coyote prowling the dark plains for easy kills but as something of a priest: a man who stands for something, who lives by a creed, who has values. Eddie is no con man or conniver; he believes in the power of the diamond's illusion and its capacity to make people happy. In a small way, he's a great man. Any salesman who can come back to the same store for 30 years has accomplished something, and Cohen knows that.
But there are two complicating factors in Eddie's life, which make this Pennsylvania polka memorable. The first is that Eddie, who wears a new starched white shirt, the same black tie, the same dark suit every day, is as much gripped by discipline's darker twin as by discipline itself. And that darker twin is repression: He seals off his feelings and commits himself only to the rigidity of a careful routine. In part this is his nature, but clearly he also uses it as a way to protect himself from the grief he feels over a recent tragedy (a fact that, typically, does not emerge until the movie is half over). He is not a man for letting go, for letting his inner child out. His inner child was last seen hitchiking out of town in '61.
And as it turns out, Bobby's best gift isn't for selling diamonds but for selling himself for a single night. He's one of those smilers who seem to do well with the women whom a sales trip throws up randomly but consistently: waitresses, clerks, bartenders. It's not that he won't take no for an answer, it's that he doesn't understand any part of it, neither the n nor the o.
Unstated, a barter is achieved. Bobby will be taught the ropes, while Eddie will get a lesson in relaxation at the Altoona Riding Club, a "massage parlor" off the main road, where Eddie knows Tina (Jasmine Guy), the, um, manager of the, um, spa.
That's the comic tension hanging over the movie. Yet tragedy seems to haunt the air, too, and that provides the second complication. It's as if memories from Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" cling to any decent American story of product-pushers on the road, with the single exception of "The Music Man." Like Willy Loman, Eddie's wearing down. He's had a heart attack and is no longer insurable; a corporation has bought the company and it's easing the high-commission guys out.
Fundamentally, "Diamond Men" asks but one question: Is Eddie Miller Willy Loman or is he Professor Harold Hill, who knows the territory? The answer is worth finding out.