I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.
Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982. MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.
It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.
Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.
Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).
Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’. In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.
The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’. One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.
And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.
Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.
He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters. He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).
‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters. Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s?
Barry – any chance of a sequel?
(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago. Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. No comment…)