Monday, March 27, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #162 – Diner (1982, dir. Barry Levinson)

Barry Levinson’s impressive resume includes such award-winning films as Rain Man, Bugsy and Good Morning, Vietnam. Before any of those films however, there was Diner, his 1982 directorial debut. Although a critical success at the time, it barely made a splash at the box office and was ill-recognized by the Academy save for one nomination for Best Original Screenplay. However, its young cast would all go on to have significant careers and its cultural impact on both the big and small screen is undeniable to this day.

Set in 1959 Baltimore, the film revolves around a group of young men a year or two out of high school and their frequent late night trips to their local favorite hangout, Fell’s Point Diner. Billy (Timothy Daly) makes a special trip home from college to be the best man in his best friend’s wedding. Baltimore Colts-obsessed Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), the groom-to-be, has such reservations about his impending courtship that he has demanded that his fiancé score 65% or higher on a test that he created about football. Shrevie (Daniel Stern), another of the pals, has fallen, perhaps too early, into a dysfunctional marriage to Beth (Ellen Barkin). In one vulnerable moment he confides to his buddies that he has trouble having a conversation with his wife for more than five minutes. Suave ladies’ man and chronic gambler Boogey (Mickey Rourke) meanwhile is in debt to local bookmakers and can’t seem to keep from getting in further over his head, taking bets on everything from sports games to his own sex life. Rounding out the crew are the habitual wisecracker Modell (Paul Reiser) and drunken trouble maker Fenwick (Kevin Bacon).

The characters are all flawed in their own way, but honestly that isn’t the most interesting thing about this film. Levinson, a Baltimore native, wrote the screenplay as an autobiographical document. He knows these characters. They are his friends, his family… his people. And what makes Diner stand out from, say, Porky’s or American Graffiti as more than just another 50’s rock n’ roll nostalgia film is the way the characters interact with each other. With Diner, Levinson essentially created a style of cinema that is arguably one of the most frequently used styles even today, the concept of “no concept.” Diner has a plot, but the plot is an afterthought. What makes it such a masterpiece is the fact that the film is largely made up of snappy, clever dialogue. Literally, men are sitting having conversations about music, film, girls, pop culture, sandwiches... really, nothing in particular.

A decade later, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would debut their “show about nothing,” expanding on Levinson’s focus on the mundane aspects of conversation. Seinfeld was one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s and it built its entire premise on the fact that it didn’t have to have a premise. It even had similar characters as Diner. Reiser’s neurotic and fidgety Modell in particular could be considered an early blueprint of the character of Jerry. A whole generation of filmmakers from Noah Baumbach to Jon Favreau to Judd Apatow have made their livings showcasing male interactions and friendships that are almost identical to the ones portrayed in Diner. One of the most successful and important filmmakers of the last thirty years, Quentin Tarantino, even owes a debt to Levinson. Each of his films are masterpieces of violence and intrigue. What sets his movies apart from other blockbuster action films is their intense focus on dialogue and pop culture. Of course, those films had some of the most brutal violence in the history of film. I don’t know about you, but what springs to mind faster for me are the lines and lines of quotable dialogue. Give me the scene in Reservoir Dogs where the bank robbers sit around the table talking about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” or Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction sitting at the coffee shop discussing whether “that Arnold from Green Acres” is a filthy animal over the shoot-em-up scenes any day.

If you’re a fan of buddy films, comedic dramas or any of the directors I just mentioned, you should check out Diner. Particularly if you are a fan of Levinson’s work in general and somehow missed this one. Not only is it interesting to explore where a career as illustrious as Levinson’s got started, it is also a film that changed the way screenplays are written forever.

-         Jonathan Eagle

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