An ageing diamond salesman suffers his first heart attack and is fired from his job by a boss who once fetched his coffee. Facing the abyss of unemployment, he fights for a continuation and is given the option of remaining on the job if he's willing to train his future replacement by introducing him to the "territory" of customers he's developed over the 30 years of his career and a possible desk job afterward.
Shades of Arthur Miller's play, "Death of a Salesman"; echoes of a score of salesmen stories such as "Tin Men", "Glen Gary Glen Ross" and others. The comparisons are apt, though this one follows a different path and more than justifies its addition to the payroll.
Eddie Miller (Robert Forster) is no Willie Loman. He may be desperate to hold his job but he's not falling apart, not mentally and, the heart attack notwithstanding, not physically either. Training his replacement is just the only option he's got, so he takes off in his Lincoln Town Car on his route with his "line" of diamonds in a black case and with a brash kid, Bobby Walker (Donnie Wahlberg) in tow as his protege. But from the outset, the oddity of this pair is evident. They inhabit entirely different worlds.
Life on the road is a succession of budget motels, seedy coffee shops and small town businesses. As Walker meets Miller's customers it becomes clear that the protege's idea of selling diamonds is through insistence and intimidation. A diamond store owner who might be reticent about adding to his stock is subjected to Walker's immediately alienating brand of salemanship. But what Walker lacks in sensitivity, Miller provides in spades, as he ultimately makes the sale and proves how a gentle, understanding manner is the needed chemistry and psychology for a risky purchase.
Having this lesson demonstrated over and over, the kid finally acknowledges his own inadequacies and pleads for the older man's guidance. This transition is the core of the story and takes it into a territory of its own.
As the protege disciplines himself and learns from his mentor, the relationship takes on a new dimension and a deeply felt bond is established. When they stop at a hotel, Walker is not content to score with the ladies at the bar; now he wants, through the best of intentions, to break down Miller's walls of self protection and to engage the older man in a conquest of his own. He pushes this until Miller relents and agrees to accompany him to a roadhouse massage parlor where the proprietor is an old friend and where the girls, ie, masseuses, provide anything one might want for a price.
The master diamond salesman, quiet Eddie Miller, is thus exposed to first time experiences he's never dreamed of and which play out in ways that emphasize meaning in lifelong values. Miller is true to his nature and the environmental situation leads to a string of mixed consequences, like a disastrous episode of mismatch, a liason that could be a lasting one, the theft of the jewel case, a disappearance and a surprise ending that shows the value of disciplined planning.
There is great enjoyment in watching the solid Forster as the epitome of experiential depth becoming the role model for Wahlberg's superficial emptiness. Forster creates charismatic magnetism with his contained but intense manner of self confidence and straightforward honesty, turning in one his most memorable characterizations. It makes a filmgoer wish for more such opportunities for Forster to carry a story on such sturdy shoulders.
But the story's got to be as right for him as this one. "Diamond Men" is a rich, adult character study told with wit and a realistic observation of human nature by writer-director Daniel M. Cohen. It portends well for future projects. The highways and byways, road people, opportunists and struggling shopowners are photographed with appropriate sensitivity by John Huneck. See this sparkling gem.