1982 - R - 110 Mins.
|Director: Barry Levinson
|Producer: Barry Levinson
|Written By: Barry Levinson
|Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser
|Review by: John Ulmer
"There's not that much of a story, really. What do we do? We drive around. Maybe he's going to get married, maybe not. It's really more about the fact that it's a very honest portrayal of a group...of guys that people relate to on a very personal level."
- Kevin Bacon on the "Diner" DVD interview reel
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," a handful of characters debate the true meaning of Madonna's hit song "Like a Virgin." Long before "Reservoir Dogs" (a decade, to be exact), there was Barry Levinson's directorial debut, "Diner," a coming-of-age tale concerning five Baltimore residents in their 20s who try to get past crucial points in their lives. In a similar scene to that in Tarantino's masterpiece, four friends -- played by Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, and Paul Reiser -- argue over which singer produces better make-out music: Mathis or Sinatra? "Presley," says Rourke’s character, ending the conversation with blunt confidence. And that's that.
The movie has plentiful rich dialogue, some of it seemingly pointless, most of it subtly touching and meaningful. The film has a lot to say about the difference between friendship and true love. "I love you," one of the characters tells the woman he wants to marry. Fixated on an object behind him, her eyes cold and a grim reflection of deep contemplation, she replies, "You're confusing a friendship with a woman, and love. It's not the same." In a very different sort of way, it tackles the same material as "When Harry Met Sally," but it doesn't stop there.
The film is masterful in its ability to present us with a group of people we sincerely care for, and who all seem very real -- more so than the characters you'll find in most movies. The dialogue was primarily improvised, especially by Paul Reiser, whose debates with fellow pals are the highlights of the film. Even after the truly poignant ending there is a discussion about evolution that plays over the credits. "Did you hear about this evolution stuff?" Reiser asks. He starts to mock the theories which would later become widely considered as truth by scientists, despite lack of actual evidence supporting the theory. Amusing, how the movie has so much to say about so many different things.
"Diner" is a film that connects with us because we can all sympathize with its characters and their inner motivations. Eddie (Guttenberg) is afraid of getting married; Schrezie (Stern) is married and wishes he wasn't; Boogie (Rourke) would like to finally find a girl he could respect; Bill (Timothy Daly) wants to get married to the girl he loves but she doesn't want to. The whole movie appears to be focused on girls, and indeed most of it is, yet there's a lot of other stuff that's even deeper. Fenwick (Bacon) is what Bacon himself described as a "permanently drunk," sick kid who doesn't know what he wants out of life, thrown out of his family and wandering the streets looking for a meaning to his life. He's the character who is so lost he doesn't even seem to care very much about girls.
The performances are top-notch, and some of the best ever recorded on film. Levinson shot all the scenes inside the diner last, and gave the actors time to grow on one another as close friends. Towards the end of shooting, they were all comfortable in each other's presence, and these true friendships are clearly evident on-screen -- we are convinced that these are real pals, not just actors reading lines off of a piece of paper.
The film is essentially about this group of Baltimore college kids in 1959 that come to a crossroads in their lives. They must grow up, but they don't want to. They're still kids at heart. The tagline for the film was, "Before the counterculture of the '60s, there was the counter culture." The movie substitutes a new decade as the turning point in their lives -- as the years roll on, so do their lives. The end of the movie is simply astonishing in construction. To this day I can't think of a better way for it to have ended.
The story is firmly rooted in its characters, which I think is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking. You can have big budgets, witty scripts, good ideas -- but you can't compensate for characters. They are always the driving force of the movie, and I firmly believe that almost any great story succeeds as such, in some way, because of its characters. The actors playing them were chosen from over 300 hopefuls. They would later go on to have big careers -- Guttenberg in "Police Academy," Stern in "Home Alone," Rourke in "Johnny Handsome," Bacon in "Hollow Man," Reiser in the television show "Mad About You," and Ellen Barkin -- her first role being that of Beth in "Diner" -- in "Sea of Love," just to name a few. Yet these -- their earliest performances -- are arguably their best. Ever. Guttenberg later went on to become renowned for his poor acting abilities and grating "comedy" -- he actually manages to act here, still obnoxious, but in a more deliberate and likable way. Stern, who helped make "Home Alone" one of the best comedies of the '90s, is absolutely perfect as Shrevie. His performance is amazing because it is so very different from his geeky roles in "City Slickers" and "My Blue Heaven." He's still a geek in "Diner" but his character seems more real, less played for laughs. His speech to his wife, Beth, about his records, is touching -- first it is funny, and we are laughing at his absurd obsession with records, then he snaps the line: "When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, OK? Just don't touch my records, ever! You! The first time I met you? Modell's sister's high school graduation party, right? 1955. And Ain't That A Shame was playing when I walked through the door!" It connects with everyone, in some way or another, because we all value certain items for personal reasons. Shrevie's are records. His obsession suddenly becomes justified. It's the careful balance of laughter and emotion that helps "Diner" succeed as valuable entertainment -- much in the same way as "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," it's an '80s comedy that contains elements of truth that so many others during that era missed out on. Just like that speech that Steve Martin gives to John Candy, we laugh. Then there is Candy's touching retort -- and we reconsider. That is one of the many reasons that I love "Diner" -- because it is smart enough to handle the audience without manipulating us, and caring enough to let its characters roam free in a realistic environment. If there's a single line of hokey dialogue in "Diner," I must have missed it.
Prior to "Diner," Levinson was a nobody -- and perhaps that is why his first project is that most in tune with its characters and their natures. The movie was very risky when the studio released it in 1982 -- there was talk of shelving the finished product for fear of losing money. Reluctant, MGM finally released the movie into theaters, but with poor advertising -- it tanked. Yet it received some of the greatest reviews of the year. In an effort to convince MGM, Levinson showed a screening of the movie to critic Pauline Kael, who gave it an exceptional review, as did the majority of critics at that time. On the surface, "Diner" seems rather boring -- it's just a movie about nothing, really, except growing up. Yet it captured the hearts of many, becoming a cult sleeper that still entices new fans to this very day.
It's a film of many integrating mixed genres, each one carefully balanced and perfectly maintained throughout. "Diner" has some of the best dialogue of all time, not to mention a handful of Oscar-worthy performances. This is not Levinson's best but it's one of his most deeply touching projects. It has a lot to say about many things and it actually gets around to addressing them -- which is rare to find in any movie. This is a true gem.