Movies We Like
In 1982 when Diner was released it may have been confused with Porky's, another film about the nostalgic sexual misadventures of young men in the 1950s. Porky's, though a big hit in its day, was actually a pretty lousy movie and now completely forgotten. Diner, on the other hand, gets better with age. It's not just because of the smart dialog, complicated relationships, and impressive core of young actors who would go on to substantial careers; it's also a rather powerful film about growing up and coming to terms with lost youth and adult responsibilities.
Diner is the story of a group of early twenty-something young men in 1959 suburban Baltimore and is said to be semi-autobiographical for writer and director Barry Levinson. Having written scripts for Mel Brooks (Silent Movie and High Anxiety), as well as the oddball dramedy Inside Moves, Levinson was an established writer making his directing debut. Levinson would, of course, go on to have a prolific hit and miss directing career (hitting often with Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, and Wag the Dog; but missing even more often with junk like Toys, Man Of The Year, and Envy). Diner has proved to be the high point for originality and earned pathos in Levinson's career.
In American Graffiti mode Diner is the definition of "ensemble film." A group of buddies meet up and hang out at the local 24-hour diner. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is a football fanatic, days away from getting married, while Modell (Paul Reiser) spends his time annoying and kibitzing with him. Shrevie's (Daniel Stern) thing is music; he can bullshit all day with his pals, but has nothing to talk about with his lonely wife Beth (Ellen Barkin). Timothy (Kevin Bacon) is a bright but troubled rich kid rebelling against his family. Billy (Tim Daly), home from college, finds out a woman (Kathryn Dowling) he once slept with is pregnant; he wants to marry her, but she wants a career. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a gambling addicted hairdresser.
The leads all distinguish themselves admirably. There are countless memorable scenes and exchanges… Modell pestering Eddie over whether he is going to finish his sandwich. Eddie forcing his wife to take a very challenging oral football test with the fate of their marriage hinging on the outcome. Boogie, desperate to raise funds to pay off bookies, bets the guys that his date will make a play for his "package." At the cinema that evening he cheats, unzips his pants and puts himself in a popcorn box, to her shock reaching for a piece of popcorn - his explanation for how it got in there is amazing.
The smaller one-scene characters are priceless as well. Eddie’s mother brandishing a knife for her son to get out of the kitchen; the kooky customer in Shrevie’s television store; the guy who walks around quoting The Sweet Smell Of Success; the large man who tries to eat everything off the diner’s menu all at once. The choice of music from the period and the set design are impeccable. For a modest film the period detail is perfect (though some of the actors' haircuts look more Rob Lowe than Rock Hudson).
The cast really is the most impressive detail. In 1982 perhaps Daniel Stern was the most established, having co-starred in Breaking Away. But as Shrevie his treatment of his wife makes him one of the more unappealing characters in the film, but one I’m sure many young men can relate to in some aspects. As his suffering wife, Ellen Barkin showed a lot of promise. The following year she would shine as Robert Duvall’s long-lost daughter in Tender Mercies. With her sexy look, though offbeat for Hollywood standards, she would end up with an impressively diverse resume, though never quite breaking out and having the film career to match the talent.
Hot off of starring in the Village People opus Can’t Stop The Music, Guttenberg is almost the center of the Diner ensemble and he is very funny in the role. Unfortunately, after starring in the Cocoon and Police Academy films, he would go on to become one of the more annoying actors of the 1980s.
For Rourke and Bacon, Diner was a great vehicle to get them to the next level in their careers. Rourke got to express the full range of his mumbly, Brando-esq charisma. Though Boogie is a scoundrel, Rourke’s sensitivity and cool-ass look make him incredibly appealing. And of course he would go on to be one of the most interesting actors of his generation (with an up & down career to the extreme). After the successful danceical Footloose and a number of lame romantic comedies, Bacon would fight his lightweight image and eventually reinvent himself as a serious actor. Diner shows the range and deep well of emotion that he always had in him.
Barkin’s Beth spends the movie trying to keep up with the inside jokes and history between her husband and his friends. In one devastatingly pathetic scene, Stern’s Shrevie goes off on her for messing up the order of his beloved record collection. He makes her quiz him on his knowledge of the flip-sides and when she asks, “So what?” he says, “That’s just it, you never ask me what’s on the flip-side." This is the moral to the story - these men cannot relate to women and are still trapped in their boyhood roles with each other. But unlike other more exploitive films of the era, this isn’t a celebration of misogynism, it’s a much more innocent take and more honest. These men are able to love women - and they want to - but first they need to outgrow their love for each other.
Diner was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Barry Levinson).