While working on the script for High Anxiety, Barry Levinson was telling stories about his old Baltimore friends and Mel Brooks suggested that these wacky characters deserved a movie. From that conversation Diner was conceived, and we're all a little richer for it.
Levinson has done some fine work over the years directing such movies as <i>The Natural, Rain Man, Bugsy</i>, and Wag the Dog, but <i>Diner</i> is his directorial debut and is the film that will be most notably associated with him.
Diner is not a great film, but it certainly is memorable. Levinson’s film has a number of significant scenes that will be indelibly marked in your brain after a single viewing, has a great many quotable lines, and has a now legendary ensemble cast.
Set in the late 1950s in Baltimore with Chuck Berry prominently on the airwaves, we meet a crew of friends in their young twenties who all hang at a local diner. Diner is a pure period piece, and the characters portray people that we know. They feel comfortable and likable, just like the people we all used to hang out with and talk music, sports, and women. And we’d make fun of local eccentrics and solve all of Life’s problems right there at the watering hole.
That’s essentially the “plot” of Diner. Things happen during the course of the film, but that is not all that important. This is a character piece, and we are introduced to a number of young unknowns in this 1982 film who will go on to notable film careers.
While Levinson had a basic script to work from, he often allowed these actors to continue on and improvise dialog, and many do shine here. Some outstanding performances are turned in by Steve Guttenberg (Eddie Simmons), Mickey Rourke (Boogie Sheftell), Kevin Bacon (Timothy Fenwick, Jr.), Timothy Daly (Billy Howard), Daniel Stern (Shrevie Schreiber), Ellen Barkin (Beth Schreiber), and Paul Reiser (Modell). We can look at this cast today and marvel at its All-Star quality, but just remember that these were all relatively unknown at the time. For example, Kevin Bacon had worked in soap operas and in bit parts in movies like <i>Animal House</i> and Friday 13th (he didn’t last long there) before Diner. Afterwards, he worked in so many movies that nearly everyone who’s been in film is now connected to him (check out the Kevin Bacon game).
Barkin plays “vulnerable” really well here, as the good-hearted wife who is underappreciated. After Boogie has blown up at her for not sorting his records by their proper genre and not knowing who Charlie Parker is, she is left crying and is doubting her self worth. She attempts to cover when old flame Boogie comes looking for her husband, but lets on that she is hurting. Later there is a memorable scene where Barkin thanks Boogie for not following through on a sexual liaison that would have led to a real disaster, and it feels like she is drawing this from real life experience and isn’t acting.
Much of the movie feels this way, and that gives real strength to Diner. Levinson knows these characters, gives them real dialogue to work with, and then lets these actors improvise some of their own material. This may be Levinson’s first directorial effort, but it was sheer genius on his part to gather this ensemble together early in Baltimore with no real scenes to practice. This forced them to get to know each other as real people by hanging out and doing things together – enforced “method” acting, so to speak.
The encounter between Shrevie and Beth about his records is a real classic that rings so true with those of us who fell in love with rock and roll. When Beth expresses shock that anyone would care about the flip side of a record, Shrevie goes ballistic: “Every one of my records means something! The label, the producer, the year it was made. …When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, OK? Just don't touch my records, ever! …”
There are two scenes concerning marriage angst that are especially memorable as well, and both involve Steve Guttenberg. The first occurs when Shrevie is talking with Eddie about the difference that marriage makes. He can’t participate in some of the “old” conversations anymore; at least not the ones that talk about trying to find a way to have sex, yet he thinks he likes the idea of being married.
That may be of some solace to Eddie since he’s having his own doubts about his impending marriage: “I think I’ll be missing out on things.” Eddie even sets up a hilarious scenario of requiring his fiancée to pass a football test, and it’s obvious that he will be greatly relieved if she fails. Anyone who sees this film will remember that scene and will be amazed that his fiancée does as well as she does on this ultimate football trivia test, focusing primarily on the Baltimore Colts. After all, what normal person would know that the first team colors were green and gray?
As we get older, our memories may fade and get fuzzy. Like Kevin Bacon we may feel like “there's something going on that we don't know about.” In such times we can still return to “the old days” when rock and roll ruled and the Universe meant something. Levinson's first film can help fill a void we may feel as we age. After all, “we always got the diner.”