Daniel M. Cohen’s Diamond Men, from his own screenplay, functions as a charmingly observant comedy of mercantile manners until a wild plot twist places it in the ranks of the great screwball caper movies. Robert Forster’s Eddie Miller has been on the road for 30 years selling diamonds to small jewelry stores in Pennsylvania. After a heart attack temporarily incapacitates him, he is no longer insurable, which means he can no longer carry around a million dollars’ worth of merchandise in the trunk of his car. That means he is also unemployable in the only business he knows. Instead of being dumped outright, Eddie is given the option of breaking in his own replacement, Bobby Walker (Donnie Wahlberg), by smoothing the way with all the business contacts he’s established over 30 years. For this service, Eddie is given a vague promise of future employment with the firm.
The first meeting of Eddie and the brash Bobby plants the seeds of generational conflict between a laid-back jazz fancier and a rock ‘n’ roll cowboy. Whereas Eddie had been faithfully married to the same woman all his life until her recent death from cancer, Bobby beds down willing waitresses at every stop in Pennsylvania.
Gradually, however, Eddie and Bobby confess their feelings of vulnerability and therefore bond. Bobby fears failing in a job he secured by having a friend fill out his psychological profile; Eddie is deep in debt, on the verge of losing his house, and therefore can’t afford to be without a job. What he doesn’t know, and we do, is that his fate is being sealed by callous efficiency experts back in Pittsburgh.
When Bobby takes it into his head that Eddie is lonely, he tries to get Eddie dates, but the bar chicks consider Eddie too old and grumpy for the fun they crave. In desperation, Bobby drags Eddie to a massage parlor whose owner, Tina (Jasmine Guy), has had prior business dealings with Bobby. Eddie’s first encounter there is a grotesque disaster, but the second leads to a romance with a slightly older and more reserved woman named Katie (Bess Armstrong). At about this point, the film veers from sunny behavioral observation to noirish intrigue and paranoia, and there ensue a few surprises for both the characters and the audience. It doesn’t exactly break apart, but it becomes less leisurely and relaxed.
Mr. Cohen wrote and directed the film from firsthand knowledge: His father sold jewelry in upstate New York in a business founded by his grandfather. Eddie’s story is thus infused with the warmth of an appreciative son for a conscientiously dutiful family man. Mr. Forster, who has toiled as an actor for years in semi-obscurity, gives Eddie extra layers of feeling and pathos that could be derived from his own curiously shadowy and yet substantial career.
Mr. Wahlberg comes so perilously close to going over the top with his broadly buffoonish entrance that one waits for Bobby to fall flat on his face, but he gradually steadies his character into a recognizable human being. Similarly, Ms. Armstrong’s Katie comes on at first as some sort of unfocused self-parody, but she, too, emerges as someone subtler and more complex than we first imagined. All in all, Mr. Cohen displays a flair for developing characters in unexpected directions that far more experienced directors might envy. Dare I say it without hating myself afterward? Diamond Men is a gem of a movie.
Lessons From Liverpool
Stephen Frears’ Liam, from a screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, is in one way very relevant to our current crisis arising from the toppling of the Twin Towers, and in another a throwback to movies that say something about the human and social condition. The scene is Liverpool in the 1930′s, as seen through the eyes of 7-year-old Liam, a wide-eyed boy afflicted with a disabling stammer (and played by Anthony Borrows with the kind of remarkable expressiveness and behavioral eloquence we have come to take for granted in this golden age of child actors). Liverpool is seething with labor unrest over high unemployment and with anti-Semitic British fascists who are directing the blame at Jewish employers, landlords, pawnbrokers and the owners of lordly mansions.
The situation is an earlier example of the current scattered scapegoating of Muslims and Arabs in our midst following the terrorist attacks. It’s an old story with the German-Americans during World War I, the Japanese-Americans during World War II and the African-Americans from the days of the Founding Fathers all the way to the very recent past. In some measure, when one virus of bigotry is conquered, another arises to take its place, and even the original one is never fully vanquished.
In Liam’s world, his father (Ian Hart) is left unemployed when the local Jewish-owned shipyard closes. His older brother, Con, is the only breadwinner until Teresa (Megan Burns), Liam’s older sister, lies about being Catholic to get a maid’s job in one of the aforementioned Jewish mansions. The last thing Mum (Claire Hackett) tells Teresa before she goes to work is that she’s to make it clear that she doesn’t clean toilets. The first shot of Teresa at work shows her kneeling before a commode in the process of cleaning it.
This is typical of the film’s sometime glib compressions of cause and effect. The Catholic school Liam attends seems to have a curriculum consisting entirely of horror stories about sinners in hell right out of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Liam has a peculiar problem at the confessional trying to explain how he accidentally came upon his mother standing in the nude; he could not understand afterward why his mother had pubic hair and the nude in Botticelli’s Venus painting in the art book from the library did not.
There’s a final burst of violence involving Dad and his newfound fascist black-shirted friends that backfires on an innocent member of his family. Dad is now left to contemplate the bitter futility of his existence. Mr. Frears and Mr. McGovern have resisted the temptation to round out the moral of the film with a flow of populist or even Marxist rhetoric from the mouths of their working-class characters. Instead, we are shown, through a series of caressing gestures on the hair of his wounded sister, that Liam will grow up amid the chaos around him to become a decent human being.