(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 minutes, theatrical release date: March 5, 1982)
In what became the year of the teenage sex comedy, Barry Levinson's 1982 slice-of-life film Diner looked like an underdog then and still does even now. It was made for $5 million by a studio which had little faith in a dialogue-driven variant on the classic American Graffiti formula. The central sextet of actors could not develop into a cohesive until they all shared one camped, fetid trailer, saving their group moments until the end of the shoot. It was practically shelved until positive critical reception, spearheaded by influential New Yorker scribe Pauline Kael, brought Levinson's film reluctantly into the light. And a phenomenal Vanity Fair article not only acknowledges its influence on the likes of English novelist Nick Hornby and the prolific American filmmaker Judd Apatow, but also tells you straight up the reservations experienced by the likes of Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin and Mickey Rourke, the three cast members with the brightest, most prolific careers of the ensemble troupe.
Diner, however, remains a surprising, effortlessly bittersweet treat after nearly 30 years since its uncertain distribution. Better not to lump Barry Levinson in with the glorified puerility of the Bob Clarks and Boaz Davidsons of the world and instead see Levinson as the American heir apparent to Federico Fellini, particularly citing his 1953 story of encroaching adulthood, I Vitelloni. Here is a movie rich in character and conversation, and even when it's not, has the power of perception and passage. But where the Academy Award-nominated Levinson (here for Best Original Screenplay) really shines is in the presentation of community; the autobiographical Baltimore of Christmastime 1959 feels genuinely like a living thing of its own, a joint triumph of setting, production design, song selection, and minute details. There's always something on the margins which adds to the period precision; the swarming crowd of a movie theater, the hubbub of a dance hall social, the patrons of the titular all-night eatery. At one point, the camera holds on a serviceman asleep on a train station bench, a layabout whose presence is paralleled by the image of one of the principals emerging from his lazy indulgence.
That individual is Eddie Simmons (Steve Guttenberg), about to plunge nervously into the married life but whose irritability is felt in the contentious banter amongst his friends as well as his own mother (Jessica James). Riled from his late sleeping by his best friend Billy Howard (Timothy Daly), a surprise visitor bussed in from New York for the New Year's Eve nuptials, he proceeds to pester and threaten his knife-toting mom to the point where he coerces her to make a baloney sandwich for breakfast. His attitude towards women is sorely underdeveloped, even towards his own bride-to-be, Elyse, who needs to pass a rigorous football trivia exam to keep Eddie from calling the whole thing off. As he puts it, "If you want to talk, you always have the guys at the diner. You don't need a girl if you want to talk."
One of Eddie's confidantes is Larry "Shrevie" Schreiber (Daniel Stern), already a husband and just as stunted in communicating with his own wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin). "I can come down here, and we can bullshit the entire night away, but I cannot hold a five-minute conversation with Beth," Shrevie admits, pining for the days when sex was extensively planned out of wedlock. Instead of Eddie's preoccupation with the Colts, Shrevie is hung up on his library of 45s to the point where he lashes out at Beth for fudging up the filing system and even having the gall to not know who Charlie Parker is.
Billy earnestly proposes to his platonic friend of six years, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), after an impromptu night of passion a month ago leaves her pregnant, but they fail to see eye-to-eye, just as well. "You're confusing a friendship with a woman and love," she reasons, but Billy's error is merely one of telling and not showing. The only exception to the romantic rule is Bobby "Boogie" Sheftell (Mickey Rourke), a smooth-talking salon employee compulsively addicted to sex and gambling.
And then there's Timothy Fenwick, Jr. (Kevin Bacon), a reckless college dropout and drunkard who is introduced freaking out his underage date and punching out windows in the basement of the dancehall "for a smile." Billy, Shrevie, Eddie, Boogie, and Fenwick commiserate regularly at the Fells Point Diner, a greasy spoon café which the boys retreat to as if it was their own treehouse to banter about love, loss and whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis makes the better make-out music.
Flanked by the fast-talking, wise-cracking Modell (Paul Reiser), Levinson's boys' club is unflappable to the point of often stepping over each other's words and stammering in the face of verbal curveballs. The heated Sinatra vs. Mathis argument is taken to its logical end when Eddie inquires Boogie about his preference, and the rakish Romeo simply states "Presley." Both Steve Guttenberg and Daniel Stern's reactions are spontaneous and side-splitting.
Movies like St. Elmo's Fire, Fandango and Queens Logic (also with Kevin Bacon) rose up in the aftermath of the micro-success of Diner, all chronicling the bonds and burdens of tight-knit young adult friends in the process of accounting for real-life responsibilities. Diner, however, remains a singular achievement, a film which goes against Modell's ad-libbed gripe about "nuance" not being a real word by continually offering finely-sketched and wonderfully performed examples of actual nuance, so much so that the film takes on a literary transcendence.
The character of Fenwick, for instance, is a gem of lost innocence and misplaced rebellion. Frittering away his grandfather's trust fund despite being smart enough to compete on College Bowl, Fenwick has a knack for keeping his friends off-guard for laughs but is also bitterly distanced from his family. He's the one least likely to cope or compromise, which is something his friends each realize is imminent. A stunt in which Fenwick, choked up that someone has stolen the Baby Jesus statue from the church's Nativity display, strips down to his boxers and takes his place in the manger is farce and tragedy in equal measure. Bacon was betwixt Friday the 13th and Footloose at this point in his younger career, and makes a marvelous breakthrough.
Equally affecting are Mickey Rourke, who had a minor but memorable part in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat prior, and the sumptuous Ellen Barkin in her screen debut (as were Daly and Reiser, going the full mensch). Boogie is preoccupied with hot tips and hotter girls, boastfully wagering his friends on the extents of his conquests, leading to the archetypical scene where he pulls the old "hole in the popcorn bag" trick to get ahead. Not only that, but he's in debt $2000 to the local sharks, who are violently losing their patience. And yet Rourke invests enough to keep Boogie from being wholly boorish, especially in his moments with Barkin's Beth, a former steady of his who desperately needs emotional instead of physical validation after Shrevie's self-righteous record collection tantrum. An awkward sense of integrity develops when he can't use Beth to fool his friends into believing he made it with his girlfriend.
Maybe the appearance of a classy horseback rider who calls herself Jane Chisholm (Claudia Cron), after the Chisholm Trail linking Texas to Kansas, could signal real love, but he is too confused after her first appearance to follow through. As Fenwick puts it, "Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?"
Even characters who on the outside embody the most gratingly childish attitudes towards their lot are performed and written with great finesse. Steve Guttenberg as Eddie, for instance, reveals a latent uncertainty behind his clingy Colts cultism and alpha male assertions, a sympathetic hesitation to commit fueled by the lack of wild oats sown and inability to fulfill his position as loving husband. The fact that we never really see Elyse may have the marginalizing feeling of a looming specter, but that doesn't take away from the humanization that occurs in regards to his character.
The undervalued Daniel Stern character of Shrevie could've been also reduced to sour petulance were it not for his casual ease with a one-liner and a lack of spite which makes his argument with Beth play a lot more poignantly. The fact that he concludes his tirade by recalling the song which played when they first met at a graduation party for Modell's sister, Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," proves his musical romanticism is not completely pitiable, as he genuinely has love for Beth. As it is for much of the gender negotiations in Diner, the theme is communication breakdown and the raw expressions of stubbornly misplaced male ego. Not only in his encyclopedic memory of his record collection does Shrevie recall the type of maniacal impediments Nick Hornby laid bare in High Fidelity.
Levinson and his incredible cast of burgeoning big names treat the material with such genuine skill, that Diner manages to achieve that brilliant feat which makes the best self-reflexive passion projects work. It makes the personal universal. Even if you never watched a friend unzip his pants with a popcorn box seated above it or gazed in shock as a diner customer had a marathon meal consisting of an entire left side's worth of entrées, there are laughs and smiles in abundance. I never once felt the movie struck a false note, even when Billy commanders the piano at a dull strip bar for a boogie woogie infusion, and the dialogue both original and on loan (from Sweet Smell of Success, natch) display the kind of warmth and backwards authenticity that Shrevie would be proud of, just so long as he doesn't blame any jumps or skips on his wife. Some things are better left silently forgiven.
We'll always have Diner, though, which proudly warrants a great big standing O. I'll gladly take a doggy bag.