It's hard to blame Kirk Douglas for choosing so formulaic a vehicle as a comeback film, especially after fighting back from a devastating stroke almost four years ago. Certainly no one can fault him for wanting to act again, to prove he's still got it. However, the question is: Can the movie that results actually be any fun to sit through? Isn't it just going to be a maudlin ego trip calculated to win Douglas the Oscar he's been thrice nominated for but never won? And do we really need to see yet another film that deals with a dysfunctional father-son relationship? As it turns out, Diamonds is as by-the-numbers as VCR instructions.
And, inexplicably, it's also a blast. Douglas never plays the role of retired boxer Harry Agensky for tragedy; his speech may have become a little slurred, but he manages to pull off a Polish accent and a great deal of facial articulation. Any other signs that the man had a stroke are entirely absent: He dances, boxes, and climbs stairs with a vigor that belies his 82 years. Watching him on-screen, it's easy to imagine him relentlessly and energetically harassing every member of the Motion Picture Association of America (successfully, as it turns out) to alter the film's rating from R to PG-13. Never for a second will most focus on his health; those who do will be impressed that much more when they consider how near to death Douglas seemed back in 1996. On the other hand, co-stars Dan Aykroyd and Corbin Allred (Anywhere but Here) -- playing, respectively, Douglas' son and grandson -- take a little getting used to.
The plot goes something like this: Back when Harry was a world-champion boxer (seen in flashback via clips from his star-making performance in Champion in 1949, recalling a similar device used in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey last year), he threw a fight; for his services, a mobster paid him off in diamonds. For years, he's been telling the story of how he hid the diamonds in the wall of that same mobster's own house. Now that money is getting scarce and he may have to go into a nursing home, he wants to go and retrieve the booty. Grandson Michael (Allred) likes the sound of this plan, and he persuades his father, Lance (Aykroyd), to go along with it, primarily because it will mean spending time with Harry before he dies. It's road-trip time.
Directed by John Asher
Screenplay by Allan Aaron Katz
Starring Kirk Douglas, Dan Aykroyd, Lauren Bacall, Corbin Allred, Kurt Fuller, Jenny McCarthy, and Mariah O'Brien
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Needless to say, the journey from Canada to Nevada is a metaphor for the true journey of male bonding. It's all fairly obvious generation-gap stuff: the World War II generation man who worked hard to make a living but neglected his sons, the boomer dad bogged down with sensitive-guy baggage who's seen as an ineffectual wimp by both his father and son, and the young teen forced to grow up fast in the era of cynicism. Don't expect any deep insights as to how to bridge these gaps; the film seems to suggest that everyone would be better off if fathers would just take their sons to a brothel. They all get along by film's end (of course), yet none of them has really changed; they just suddenly understand one another better, despite no obvious revelations that would induce such a breakthrough (other than that they all meet some very sympathetic and insightful hookers).
But never mind. This is Douglas' show, and he seems to have come up with much of his own dialogue. As he puts it, "A stroke is God's way of trying to make me shut up, but it didn't work." When he gets to play off Lauren Bacall, as brothel mistress Sin-Dee, the results work, made all the more honestly sentimental by the fact that both characters are trying so hard not to play it that way. Because of this and the lack of a weepy soundtrack, these scenes are more effective than some of the analogous material in, say, The Straight Story.
Director John Asher (Chick Flick) is efficient with the visuals and never lets the pace drag (the film's a little less than an hour and a half), but he can't rein in all of the weaknesses in Allan Aaron Katz's script. It might have been wise to trim the scene in which an overzealous Mountie asks Douglas whether he has ever been a member of the Communist Party, or a gratuitous self-pity scene in which Douglas looks at himself in the mirror, cries out, "Why didn't you die?" and then smashes the glass (although the impromptu boxing match that ensues with an elderly motel owner is a highlight of the film). Asher met and married ex-Playmate Jenny McCarthy during the shoot, and amazingly, her brief role as a hooker is relatively subdued, jettisoning most of her patented annoying mannerisms.
In the end, the decision on Douglas' part to make his comeback in such a mainstream film was a sound one, regardless of whether cynics might have preferred a more interesting vehicle. If even one kid who doesn't know Kirk Douglas gets to see the movie -- and even if said kid never investigates the man any further -- he'll get the sense that Douglas is, at the very least, one cool old man.