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Most of us spend half of our waking hours earning our living, but you’d never glean that from movies. Unless your profession is dangerous (secret agent, astronaut, hit man) or sexy (stripper, prostitute, porn star), you’re unlikely to see it represented onscreen. Only a handful of first-rate movies about the soul-killing oppressiveness of work springs to mind: Ermanno Olmi’s The Job, Claude Goretta’s The Invitation, and, above all, Ernst Lubitsch’s sublime romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner.

The first half of writer-producer-director Daniel M. Cohen’s Diamond Men deserves to be appended to this list. Cohen based his screenplay on the experiences of three generations of his family who worked as traveling diamond salesmen. His father inspired the main character, Eddie Miller (Robert Forster), a veteran jewelry rep for small stores in central Pennsylvania. After 30 years on the road, he’s suffered a heart attack and is consequently deemed no longer insurable by his employers. To remain active and to keep up the payments on his home and car, Eddie, a widower, agrees to break in his replacement, Bobby Walker (Donnie Wahlberg), a bumptious young man whose previous sales experience consists of stocking vending machines with junk food.

Diamond Men is a cross-generational buddy movie that benefits from its refreshingly mundane setting. Cohen captures the anonymous, peripatetic lives of jewelry salesmen, who travel covertly and choose obscure lodgings to ensure the security of their sample cases of precious stones. He juxtaposes Eddie’s soft-sell approach to his trusting, longtime customers with Bobby’s unschooled brashness, a contrast mirrored in the characters’ personal lives. Cast adrift by the death of his wife, Eddie has become a taciturn loner; arrogant, potty-mouthed Bobby is a motel cowboy, specializing in concupiscent waitresses. At the end of their first week together, Eddie views his replacement as a hopeless slacker who sleeps through appointments and alienates clients. But he’s gradually won over by Bobby’s determination to shape up and make his mark.

In the ’60s, Forster seemed headed for stardom, scoring leads in Reflections in a Golden Eye and Medium Cool. Then his career hit the skids; for the next 25 years, he made do with work in low-budget action pictures and television series. In 1997, his Oscar-nominated turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown reversed his fortunes, leading to his casting as Eddie, his meatiest role to date. Still ruggedly good-looking and maturely authoritative, Forster has learned how to make wordless glances as eloquent as the most impassioned dialogue. Aspiring screen actors should regard his performance in Diamond Men as a master class in their craft.

With only a few supporting screen credits thus far, ex-New Kid on the Block Wahlberg shines as Forster’s foil. While establishing Bobby as an irresponsible, hormonally driven jerk, Wahlberg subtly prepares us to accept the vulnerability and loyalty hidden beneath the character’s boisterous surface.

Diamond Men is initially so appealing that one feels doubly disappointed when it goes off the rails in its second half. Apparently afraid that his film’s muted verisimilitude was too restrained, Cohen clumsily spiced things up with a contrived, poorly staged robbery scene and several idealized whorehouse sequences featuring Jasmine Guy as a warm-hearted madam and toothy Bess Armstrong as a ladylike ex-hooker who thaws Eddie’s chilled heart and reactivates his libido. The movie crashes and burns in a terribly misconceived Mexican coda, replete with preposterous plot twists and hollow high spirits. Ultimately, Cohen’s strained efforts to make his modest character-driven film more conventionally entertaining undermine its success. But its controlled, sensitively observed opening reels distinguish it from the worthless offerings that have marked this worst of all movie summers.

The twilight of the silly season also brings Wet Hot American Summer, one of the strangest movies in recent memory. The title and premise—the misadventures of counselors on the closing day at a Maine summer camp—prepare us for a raunchy farce in the disreputable tradition of Meatballs and Porky’s. Instead, the movie, written by sketch-comedy troupe the State members Michael Showalter and David Wain, and directed by Wain, is what I can only term an anti-comedy, a contemptuous subversion of randy-adolescent romps. Apart from a few oddball gags, it’s only conceptually funny—which is bound to bewilder the potential audience for such efforts.

Showalter and Wain’s screenplay is a loose net enclosing a number of casually related, cursorily developed vignettes. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) halfheartedly attempts to impose order on her madcap staff while pursuing neurotic, tenure-challenged astrophysics associate professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), who is summering in a nearby cottage. Lovelorn counselor Coop (pointy-faced Showalter) falls for workmate Katie (fetching, Tuesday Weld-ish Marguerite Moreau), who, in turn, is smitten with abusive, faithless lifeguard/stud Andy (Paul Rudd). Teary-eyed arts-and-crafts supervisor Gail (Molly Shannon) deals with the collapse of her marriage by seeking therapeutic guidance from her prepubescent charges. Tormented Gene (Christopher Meloni), a wild-eyed Vietnam vet, struggles to come to terms with his postwar demons. Secret virgin Victor (Ken Marino) goes AWOL from a field trip for a promised sexual initiation with sluttish counselor Abby (Marisa Ryan). And temperamental drama director Susie (Amy Poehler) struggles to mount a closing-night production of Godspell, assisted by her producer, Ben (Bradley Cooper), who comes out of the closet with a resounding bang.

In Wet Hot American Summer’s press kit, Showalter bluntly announces the movie’s goal: “It’s all about alienating our target audience.” Ben Weinstein’s unsightly camerawork reinforces this aim, as does editor Meg Reticker’s reckless continuity, which arbitrarily cuts from a rainy sky to sunshine within a single sequence. The screenplay overflows with witless jokes that convulse its harebrained characters while excluding the viewer, who is left questioning the sanity of the proceedings. Apart from the occasional outrageously surreal episode—the counselors’ hurried trip into town during which they end up wasted in a drug den, only to return an hour later wholly refreshed—the audience is the butt of the movie’s shaggy-dog humor. Even the promised closing-credits epilogue, in which the characters reunite 10 years after the action takes place, is perverse: It is terminated after two sentences.

The reviewers who have panned Wet Hot American Summer failed to recognize that the movie is purposefully imbecilic, an irony-clad putdown of a genre the filmmakers deplore. But is an intentionally fatuous sendup superior to an inadvertently stupid farce? Like sculptor Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying machines, Wain’s film is constructed to obliterate itself. As a result, it’s intriguing to watch but as immune to censure as it is to praise. CP