starring Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy
written and directed by Dan Cohen
by Walter Chaw Much will be written about Robert Forster's performance in Diamond Men, Dan Cohen's sophomore hyphenate feature, and as Forster lands an executive producer credit (daughter Kate gets the "associate producer" tag), the veteran actor's much-deserved critical buzz this time around is a product more of design than serendipity. That doesn't lessen the picture as a nice vehicle for Forster's hang-dog melancholia, the quality that Tarantino's Jackie Brown used to magnificent effect (and the one with which David Lynch played in Forster's tantalizing Mulholland Drive cameo), but what it does do is render Diamond Men unconvincing as a drama. It's full of contrivances of the kind that cast a grimy patina over the rest of the film--a Things Change sort of deal where the line between positive senior characters and irritating grotesqueries makes the proceedings first unpleasant and then insufferable.
Eddie (Forster) is a "diamond man," a traveling diamond salesman in backwater Pennsylvania who has a heart attack, takes three months to recover, and finds his company sold and himself teamed with his eventual replacement, impetuous Bobby (Donnie Wahlberg). Eddie likes jazz, Bobby likes something that you screech along to on a Walkman, and the only thing preventing this charming oil and water odd couple from being the umpteenth variation on the same exhausted theme is Forster's agreeable understatement and Wahlberg's Method earnestness. In fact, Diamond Men reminds a great deal of Traveller, a deservedly little-seen film starring Bill Paxton and Donnie's brother Mark that features an identical dynamic with considerably less acting chops--a comparison highlighting just how far actors can carry a bad idea without actually doing anything to forgive the bad idea in the first place.
Sadly, the comparison to Traveller continues in Eddie finding a love interest in Katie (Bess Armstrong), a reformed hooker polishing her requisite heart of gold with the thousand-yard-stare of the metaphysically gaffed. The moonbeam mysticism of the dialogue given poor Katie is so poorly conceived that by the end of the film, Armstrong's boring performance has been reduced to smug winks. (To herself or to the audience, I'm not certain.) Jasmine Guy as an impossibly uninteresting Altoona Heidi Fleiss proves her laconic stint on "A Different World" was no fluke, while ever-reliable character actor George Coe casts about for a Rockwell portrait he can crinkle into. It's not that Diamond Men, which starts as one formula and ends as another (remembering that a bouquet of formulas still stinks of formula), doesn't have a few nice moments, it's that Forster and Wahlberg are so good they all but cry out for a better script.
Earning credit for avoiding homilies like "she was a diamond in the rough"--something criticism of the film will probably not be able to likewise avoid--Diamond Men doesn't know what it's doing and thus falls back on the familiar and the comfortable. Its third act thriller element is so jarringly introduced and poorly constructed that the picture's last forty minutes play like the wrong reels, something sloppy, peculiar, and indicative of Cohen's lack of imagination. Yet for as tempting as it is to savage Diamond Men for its storytelling, there remains the problem of Forster and Wahlberg: their affection and respect for one another feels genuine and unsentimental, and both move their characters along a notable evolution with remarkable openness. They provide the one compelling reason to stick with the film; when Diamond Men leads inevitably to its deeply unconvincing epilogue, it's still possible to muster something like satisfaction in the fates of Eddie and Bobby. Seeing as how we knew what these fates were going to be with about an hour left in the film, that's really saying something. Originally published: July 5, 2002.
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