Who's the Man?
Most of the action in Diamonds involves a road trip undertaken by Harry Agensky (Kirk Douglas), his son Lance (Dan Aykroyd), and grandson Michael (Corbin Allred). This means that they spend a lot of time driving in Lance’s stylish red convertible. At one point, backed by a spectacular scenic mountain vista, Michael turns to his grandfather with admiration, and exclaims, “Grandpa, you the man!” Harry responds with enthusiasm, “I’m the man!” And Lance can’t help but join in this lovefest, agreeing, “You the man, pa!”
Kirk Douglas is, indeed, the man. In such memorable films as Spartacus and the Vincent Van Gogh biopic, Lust for Life, Douglas gave impassioned performances that made him a living legend in Hollywood. The recipient of a slew of lifetime achievement awards for his work in motion pictures, Douglas returns to the screen in Diamonds for the first time after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1996. But while his performance here reveals a courage and dedication to his craft that are surely commendable, unfortunately, the film itself is otherwise a trite and stilted tale of family strife and coming-togetherness that serves as little more than a vehicle (far less attractive than the convertible) to celebrate Douglas’s abilities and achievements.
Diamonds is the tale of an ex-champion boxer named Harry Agensky, once known as “The Polish Prince,” and the difficulties he faces after losing his wife and succumbing to a stroke. Lance and Michael pay him a visit at Lance’s brother’s house in Canada, where Harry now lives, intending to take him on a diversionary skiing trip. Harry soon convinces them, however, to take him over the border to Reno instead, so that he can search for 13 “magic diamonds.” The diamonds were Harry’s reward from a mobster, “Duff the Muff,” for throwing a fight some forty years ago. Now he is convinced that, by collecting the diamonds, he will have enough money to pay for a private nurse and keep himself out of “that damn old man’s home.” Though he doubts Harry’s story, Lance agrees to drive his father and son to Nevada, hoping to repair his relationships with both in the process. What follows is a plodding journey during which the three man-children confront and overcome past resentments and present difficulties. And of course, they realize their love for one another as a result of their shared hijinks and adventures.
If Hollywood has taught us one thing, it’s that there’s nothing like a road trip to bring out the strain in interpersonal relationships and flatten characters. As Lance, Dan Aykroyd’s performance runs the emotional gamut from mad to sad. We soon learn that Harry’s strict discipline during Lance’s childhood has left Lance feeling unloved and Michael’s growing affection for his mother’s new husband has left Lance feeling unimportant. While these might have been complex issues at some point in the script’s transition to screen, here they are miraculously resolved, thanks in part to a group visit to a Reno whorehouse.
It appears that, in delivering his aging father and teenage son to this brothel, (where all the girls are stunning, available, and happy to see them), Lance creates the ultimate male bonding experience. The shared bliss of buying sexual experience brings the men back together again. Lance comes to terms with his harsh childhood, realizing that Harry loved him all along in his own irascible way. Similarly, he repairs his fractured relationship with his son, who realizes that if his Dad is cool enough to rent Jenny McCarthy for him, he should be cool enough to love. We can infer from this film that troubled families (at least their male members) would be better off paying prostitutes instead of psychologists to deal with their problems.
While Diamonds spends the bulk of its time elaborating on the healing of the men’s relationships, it does so with such formulaic sentimentality that it’s hardly worth watching. After the fifth teary father-son scene, it would seem that the film should explore other territory. Yet Diamonds offers little more than a loosely connected string of Hallmark moments they alternate, from spat to grumpy reconciliation, alley fight to brief harmony, teary breakdown to awkward embrace to ask us to care about its characters and overlook their ludicrous dialogue and predictable behavior.
If there is anything more to this film, it must be found in the performance of Kirk Douglas. Diamonds begins by flashing back to stills and footage of Douglas as a young boxer in 1949’s The Champion. That is, the film recalls the actor’s past glory just as his character recalls his own triumphs. Douglas puts energy into his role as the stricken boxer: when he’s not dancing and shadowboxing his way across the screen, he appears to be in deep reverie for his past glories and for his dead wife. But this performance works primarily because we already know and recognize Douglas’s very public history, and not because we really care about Harry Agensky. For the most part, Harry is written so poorly that such even Douglas’s considerable energy goes to waste. After smashing a mirror in frustration at his loneliness, Harry asks aloud, “Why did she have to die? Why couldn’t it have been me?” Such cliches only undercut the actors’s efforts.
Only in Douglas’s scenes with Lauren Bacall can we get past the film’s script and appreciate the very good acting it might offer. The understated and subtle interaction between Harry and Bacall’s character, Sin-Dee (who is, what else?, the Reno madame), is a refreshing change from the film’s unsubtle tearjerking. Bacall is as tender and warm-hearted as a movie madame can be, and Sin-dee’s blossoming relationship with Harry offers the only credible dynamic in the film. Sadly, the two don’t meet up until more than halfway into the film and spend precious little screen time together. Still, the presence of these veterans reminds us that, in addition to such hackneyed fare as Diamonds, the industry has (at least at one point) also produced films and actors of true quality. We can rest assured that the shining example of actors like Douglas and Bacall will remain central to Hollywood legend long after the forgettable schmaltz that is Diamonds has crumbled into obscurity.