Spoiler alert!

About this post, and also about the movie discussed herein. At the end of Diamond Men there’s a twist, which leaves you satisfied if all you want is for the characters to do well because you like them so much. To me the effect was like if you got to the end of Mean Streets and it turned out that Harvey Keitel was now going to consolidate his empire after orchestrating the downfall of the guy he was pretending to be a saint towards.  Total bait and switch in terms of the degree of drama I thought the characters were undergoing.

And it made me think: in certain genres, is the concept of the twist ending just unacceptable? Such as — and this is a pretty big group of stories — the serious drama that convinces us it’s striving for realism. We’re invested in these characters, we hope they do well, but that’s because we know them. The film says “Guess what, this guy had hidden powers!” So, he’s not the character I spent all this time following. I’ve been misled about the guy’s principles — I thought he was being himself in his reaction to a certain situation, but he was pretending. Who is he? I don’t know anymore, but I guess he had a happy ending.

Eddie was unimpressed by Bobby's musical taste.

One of the good movies Robert Forster made shortly after Jackie Brown was an wry, bittersweet drama called Diamond Men [2000], set and shot in small-town Pennsylvania and directed/produced/written by one Daniel M. Cohen [read an interview with him here]. It’s a struggling male workplace movie, it reminded me of American Buffalo and the less effervescent parts of Big Night. Teamed up to sell diamonds, to jewelry stores in places like Altoona and Johnstown, are Forster and Donnie Wahlberg. Their conversations make up most of the movie, whether driving, eating at hotel bars, or relaxing at Altoona’s most mystique-laden brothel. Obviously their rapport will determine the watchability, and the rapport goes very well.

Wahlberg plays the Donnie Wahlberg role of a cocky, streetwise guy [Bobby] who finds himself in a really good job where he fails to impress the veterans with his bravado. Forster’s character Eddie is Max Cherry in a somber suit instead of a polo shirt. He knows all the angles, he’s seen it all, nobody’s going to spring a surprise on him … within his frame of reference, which is limited to his job and the sort of people he encounters in it. Bobby makes mistakes, Eddie instructs him on not being a knucklehead, we see more moments of tension as Bobby insists on being a knucklehead at least 10% of the time, and all the while Eddie’s about to be fired for post-infarction uninsurability. Bobby introduces Eddie to the source of much of his unreliability, the women at the Altoona Riding Club. The madam [Jasmine Guy] wants everything to run smoothly; Eddie’s ex-prostitute love interest Katie [Bess Armstrong, the mom on My So-Called Life] brings peace and harmony to one corner of his world, but Bobby’s favorite girl Cherry [Kristin Minter] is a loose cannon.

Temptations to break protocol arise whenever they near Blair County, and this is the fatal flaw [shared by Bobby and Eddie in roughly 80% : 20% proportions] that leads to disaster, that leads to the excuse for firing Eddie that the corporate overlords were looking for.

I’ll tell you the disaster, since Diamond Men is just as worth watching [that is, very worth watching] if you know the plot. Cherry hangs out with criminals in her rural town, they find out she has clients who park outside the brothel with suitcases full of diamonds, and neither Bobby nor Eddie get killed, but they do get violently dispossessed of their product. Her lowlife friends are responsible for the one turning point in Eddie’s professional life, and the fact that they don’t seem to exist before or afterwards is not a good sign for the film’s efforts at realism.

I couldn't find any other good images from this film online. Owning it on VHS doesn't help.

Now, up to this point the movie’s been about Eddie, but we’ve hardly seen him alone. We see him through Bobby’s eyes, we see him through Katie’s eyes. He’s taciturn, he’s really the only character we see thinking, but he doesn’t do a voiceover. He doesn’t reveal any more of his plans to the audience than he does to Bobby. We learn who he is by what he does. But he’s not Michael Corleone [or Jackie Brown], for God’s sake. He isn’t unspooling some baroque scheme, he’s getting through each day the same way. He has clear limitations. We can all put ourselves in his shoes.

When he falls in love with Katie, the camera does too. She has a beaming radiance and talks of meditation and health food. By the time he gets tragically distracted, I’m no longer rooting for Bobby to get it together and become worthy to take over Eddie’s job, I’m rooting for Eddie’s happiness. He’s gone from a paternal figure to being the main person we care about.

And then he screws up and gets fired. I think I speak for the audience when I say that this did not anger me. He found a woman, and with respect to his job, the narrative had always implied that his job was doomed. This is not exactly Death of a Salesman in terms of tragic misery.

One of the most memorable scenes is when Eddie’s moving out of his house after being fired. He’s wearing ratty comfortable clothes and packing drinking glasses into a box. We’re finally seeing him off duty. He’s tired and irritable but coming to terms with forced retirement. He’s dealing with this by packing up his life in a thorough and careful way, like he always did before the fatal flaw was activated. His life isn’t over. The most tragic thing is that he’s sadder but not wiser, because he was pretty wise already.

Even more spoilery spoiler alert!

And then … Bobby goes looking for where Eddie went after he moved. Clues lead him to Katie. Eddie’s there with her. They’re in Mexico living off the proceeds from the faked robbery. Turns out he knew there would be an attempt on the jewels if they kept frequenting that brothel, so he put fake jewels in the normal compartment and the real jewels in an even secreter compartment, and kept the real jewels throughout his firing ordeal and the insurance investigation, and then vanished. Does he do that every night? Does he show fake jewels to people in the guise of real jewels sometimes? Every customer trusts him, so that seems unlikely. Did he start doing this when he started working with unreliable Bobby? Now that Eddie’s committed a crime for the first time in his life, why does he trust Bobby more? Bobby is very relieved to find out all this, and they laugh and sip drinks in paradise.

So it turns out he didn’t have a tragic flaw after all. Let’s go back to that interview with Daniel M. Cohen.

I’m almost never a fan of the third act device of a crime/robbery, but Diamond Men uses it as a catalyst for Eddie to make a life-altering decision and it worked surprisingly well. Could you discuss your reasons for setting up the scenario in this way?

You answered your own question, exquisitely! Isn’t it the case that plot points become ‘devices’ when they fail to resonate on more than one level? They seem like add-ons. But if they’re integrated, they feel organic. [WARNING: SPOILER!] When Eddie opens up to Bobbie’s suggestions, and becomes vulnerable to Katie’s (Bess Armstrong) allure, he compromises the credo he’s lived by for so many years. Without getting too Jungian, (although I’m a real fan of that sort of thinking) his surrender to the feminine carries with it threats that go deep. It’s often referred to in the vernacular as ‘the cost of doing business.’

Yes! Except that all the while, he knew he was compromising his credo and he compensated perfectly. Suddenly this manifestly unambitious man is Gene Hackman in Heist? Just let him be unlucky. Don’t abruptly change his principles.

I do appreciate the “WARNING: SPOILER!” for a fairly predictable plot point that is totally undone later by a plot twist which remains unspoiled. Maybe Cohen didn’t like the deus ex machina but put it in to make festival audiences smile at him during the Q&A sessions. No matter the motivation, this plot twist is a rare combination of unexpected and unhelpful.

Having written all this, I’m glad to see Jonathan Rosenbaum feels the same way.

The film’s climactic plot twist, which I won’t divulge, is another possible point of contention. This isn’t because it seems more Hollywood than anything else in the picture; it’s because Cohen deceitfully tampers with his hero’s motivations in the course of setting the whole thing up. He clearly likes Eddie and the other two principal players in this story so much that he wants to reward them, and it’s hard not to share his good feelings about them.