Delightful Days and Nights at the Diner

      I didn’t really need much of a nudge to do this review, but I got a couple. First off, I checked my “recorded” list on my DVR the other night to find that my wife had recorded “Diner” from TCM, even though we own a special edition DVD. I think she wanted to see the commentary from host Ben Mankiewicz prior to it. Then my buddy Kurtis Seaboldt sent me a link to the 2012 Vanity Fair article entitled “How Barry Levinson’s “Diner” Changed Cinema, Thirty Years Later.” I had read it at the time, and it was fun to do so again, now seven years further on.

     Up front, I will tell you that “Diner” is easily one of my top ten favorite movies of all time. I have watched it at least fifty times, and I did again in preparation for this piece….as if I needed to. But, fortunately, this doesn’t have to be some guilty pleasure outing. That Vanity Fair article, and the Rotten Tomatoes critics rating for it at 92 percent are enough backing. As an homage to that Tomatoes score, I will in the end give it a 9.2 on the Clink Scale. But that comes later.

     The 1982 film was the first of Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Series”, which would include “Tin Men”, “Avalon”, and “Liberty Heights”, all about his home town and very fine films also. But there is always something cool about an artist first showing off their chops, and that is in evidence all over the lot here. Levinson was making his directorial debut after high profile writing credits in the ‘70’s. His cast was pretty much unknown, and in the end, every single significant person associated with the film would gain some level of fame….and rightly so.

     Levinson himself would go on to win an Academy Award for directing “Rain Man” (it won Best Picture as well) in addition to making other classics like “The Natural” :Cocoon” , “Good Morning Vietnam” and numerous other acclaimed films and TV series. His seven main characters are played by Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, and Daniel Stern. It was, in general, the breakout role for each.

     This film could be tabbed a holiday movie, it does begin with a scene set on Christmas night, and finishes with a New Year’s Eve wedding. It could be called a sports movie, since the friends are all Colts fans on the week of the classic Colts-Giants 1959 NFL Championship Game. Guttenberg’s Eddie is so obsessed with the Colts that he insists that the wedding colors be blue and white, and the wedding itself is not yet secure since his fiancée has yet to pass a massive Colts trivia test, a requisite for the marriage to occur. It is also a coming of age movie, but there is no box it needs to be placed in, except for being hilarious, thoughtful, silly, intense, and wonderful.

     The friends are in their early twenties, and have no real desire to really move forward from their teenage days of playing ball and chasing girls, and of course, wasting away the wee-small hours at the diner, where they trash talk 1950’s style after a night out, over cigarettes, coffee, soda, and the Baltimore favorite, french fries and gravy.

     There is no real plotline, just the days and nights of the friends in the week leading up to the wedding. All of the characters are well-developed despite the volume of them, and the performances are all spot on. But for me, if I had to pick out a keynote, it would have to be Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick. A younger brother from an upper-middle class family, he is a disappointment to his family, who see him as a lazy slacker living off his not-so-grand trust fund. Which he somewhat is, but he is a delightfully goofy and troubled young man, who drinks too much and does crazy stunts because “it’s a smile”. Bacon is brilliant (so, secretly, is Fenwick), his demons subtly realized, while he creates constant chuckles with his great lines, often followed with a cackling low giggle I have no idea how he came up with.

     He gets the action rolling right from the start with the first two set pieces of the movie, selling his date for five dollars at the Christmas dance, and then trying to trick his friends into thinking that he has come to his end in a rollover car accident. It’s the start of one funny scene after another, most of them purely dialogue driven, and some clearly completely improvised.

     Mickey Rourke plays Boogie, a hairdresser by day, a law school student at night, a hustler on the make all the time and a compulsive gambler. Daniel Stern is Shrevie, the only of the friends who is married (to Ellen Barkin’s Beth). Stern has a complicated job. Shrevie really just wants to have fun, listen to his precious record collection, and hang with the fellas. Marriage is complicated to him, and he can’t come close to communicating with Beth with as much gusto as the guys at the Diner.

     Paul Reiser is Modell, the passive aggressive sidekick, who consistently drives Eddie nuts by not quite asking for favors. It’s a standup comedian’s type of role, he is the least developed of the characters, but he sure as hell is funny. Tim Daly is Billy, introduced a little bit into the film as he arrives from graduate school. He is Eddie’s best friend, although they couldn’t be more different. The last-second nature of Eddie’s wedding is reflected in him asking Billy to be his best man with the wedding (maybe?) just days away.

     Billy is trying to be involved with career woman Barbara, a television news director, but she wants to keep the relationship as just friends, even though a one-night rendezvous between the two has left her pregnant. This one stab at a subplot that veers away from the more period piece sexual morays is the one thing in the film that falls flat, at least to me.

     Two of the more well-known scenes are sexually based bets, sophomoric but funny, but easily not the best in the movie, somewhat like the campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles”. The more nuanced (a word Modell comically doesn’t like) scenes rule the day, and there are plenty. From the football quiz scene, to arguing which singer is the best to make out to, to Shrevie and Fenwick driving through the night guessing the flip side of records, to Fenwick’s absolutely hysterical domination of the GE College bowl contestants he is beating to the punch on his television, there is one big “smile” after another. They are countless

    Barkin does her job well, and has some key moments, but this is a buddies film, perhaps reflected in the fact that Eddie’s fiancé is heard but never seen. Vanity Fair’s article perhaps said it best. Every movie or TV show subsequent to this one where a group of people are yapping owes its debt of gratitude to this one. It’s the kind of film that inspires the sort of back and forth texting of favorite lines that Kurtis and I have indulged in this week.

     The period detail is stunning, the movie is shot in a way that makes us feel it’s a different time, and the late 50’s sound track is used to perfection. Learn what the original colors of the Dallas Texans were, see if you are familiar with the Chisholm trail (Boogie isn’t), discover “The Earl”, a mammoth man who has our friends guessing as to what the array of food he is consuming is inspired by, in relation to its place on the menu… the “Diner”.

It became in 1982, and remains to this day, one of my favorite places.


As I noted at the start


Clink Scale 9.2

Danny Clinkscale