On the Road Again
Here’s a difficult question: can you think of the last mainstream film with a grown-up protagonist whom it doesn’t treat with derision? Hard, isn’t it? The reigning wisdom in Tinseltown seems to be that adults do not go to the movies much anymore and adolescents are not interested in the dramatic possibilities of maturity. Furthermore, few actors in the possession of an AARP membership retain their hold upon public consciousness. When they do make it on-screen, the characters they portray more often than not come across as figures at the far end of their learning curves. Somehow, most screenwriters fail to believe any drama attaches itself to the effort to comprehend life when its conclusion is no longer simply a matter of speculation.
Daniel M. Cohen’s extremely satisfying debut feature, Diamond Men, is an exception. One of its many pleasures is the delineation of its adult protagonist, Eddie Miller (Robert Forster), a diamond seller in his late fifties who plies his trade in the small towns of western Pennsylvania. As the picture opens, Eddie suffers a heart attack and finds himself set out to pasture by his long-time employer. The company has been sold to a corporation, and whatever handshake agreements Eddie made in the past no longer apply. Now an insurance risk, he convinces the management to allow him one last road trip.
Robert Forster, Donnie Wahlberg, Bess Armstrong, Jasmine Guy
The only hitch is that Eddie will have to train his replacement, a twenty-something go-getter with no experience and even less patience. Bobby Walker (played by Donnie Wahlberg, formerly of New Kids On The Block and older brother to Mark), initially treats Eddie with condescension, dismissing him as “old” and treating his long-standing customers with swaggering ineptitude. But he quickly comes to admire and covet Eddie’s seemingly effortless ability to make a sale. Bobby allows himself to be mentored by Eddie, and a relationship ensues, built initially upon necessity and ultimately on friendship. Eddie’s years of knowledge allow him to read the whims of the marketplace; in turn, Bobby enables Eddie to let go of his wife’s death, who succumbed to a lengthy bout with cancer not long before his heart attack. If Eddie helps to jump-start Bobby’s business savvy, the young man rejuvenates his partner’s crippled emotions.
Bobby brings Eddie to a brothel in rural Altoona run by his old friend Tina (Jasmine Guy). At first, the young man erroneously assumes that Eddie simply needs to jump-start his libido and sets him up with a tattooed woman. What the widower wants instead is simple intimacy, preferably with a person whose experience extends to matters other than the horizontal. Tina introduces him to Katie Harnish (Bess Armstrong), who at first appears to be an unemployed office worker down on her luck. Possessed of a loopy intensity and prone to uttering Buddhist bromides, Katie intrigues the older man who discovers that her past is as complicated as his own. Their relationship forms a secondary narrative line in the film. (That said, the female characters are less well drawn than the men. We never feel as fully acquainted with either Katie or Tina as we are with Eddie and Bobby. Katie is particularly interesting, but her worldly wisdom comes across as a set of attitudes more than a hard-won view of life.)
The narrative takes a somewhat melodramatic turn when a team of thugs robs Eddie and Bobby of their sample case. The consequences of that loss form the film’s resolution, and bring about a series of transformations that may appear a bit contrived but are, nonetheless, emotionally quite satisfying. For the most part, however, Diamond Men episodically details the relationship between the peripatetic salesmen. Writer-drector Cohen presents the seemingly interchangeable small towns they visit without nostalgia or derision. Eddie has developed long-standing personal relationships with a number of his customers who reside there, and the scenes where they dicker over merchandise demonstrate an insider’s sense of the trade (Cohen’s father was a diamond man). One of the most memorable elements of the film is how Eddie patiently explains to Bobby the rules of the trade: why a dealer does not carry a gun; only eats in out-of-the-way places; and never, never separates himself from his sample case. A sale, we come to realize, is not simply the exchange of cash, but the consummation of a relationship.
Cohen’s work has the sort of low-key, actor-focused assurance that we find more often nowadays in television dramas rather than feature films. As much as anything, what makes it well worth seeking out is Robert Forster’s commanding performance as Eddie. Forster, now 60, has recently seen his career resurrected by Quentin Tarantino’s decision to cast him as the rueful bailbondsman in Jackie Brown (1997, and he received a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work). This was after more than twenty years of B-movie and direct-to-video limbo, following Forster’s well-regarded roles in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and Haskell Wexler’s pungent political drama, Medium Cool (1969). Forster is a laconic, laid-back performer with the kind of deft self-control one associates with such great character actors as Warren Oates and J.T. Walsh. At first, he seems all inhibition and lack of affect, but as he allows Eddie’s melancholy to take shape, Forster gives him a depth and subtlety that arise out of seemingly effortless underplaying. The joy that he emits as his relationship with Katie matures is all the more effective for not being overly effusive.
For that matter, Wahlberg portrays Bobby’s boyish effervescence with an affable charm, never overplaying the ebullience. As Bobby learns from Eddie, Wahlberg allows a kind of earned gravitas to emerge. Moreover, the pleasure that these two men share in one another’s company, both as characters and performers, radiates through every frame of Diamond Men. In a world ruled by multi-national capitalism and the attendant Social Darwinism that pits one person against another, Diamond Men reminds us of the humanity that underlies daily commerce and the camaraderie that links co-workers in their common endeavor to make a living.