Barry Levinson’s ‘Diner’: A Sleeper Classic

Back in 2008, a movie came out in theaters, the reviews of which cited the comeback of one Mickey Rourke. That movie was The Wrestler. I remember having a conversation with my dad about it, asking what career he was coming back to. What had this Mickey Rourke been in that was so great? He responded, “Diner.”

Diner, made in 1982, was directed and written by Barry Levinson, follows a group of friends trying to figure out their lives in 1959 Baltimore. Starring Ellen Barkin, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Tim Daly, and Paul Reiser, the film easily made their careers.

When Levinson gave the script to his agent, they apparently didn’t know what to do with it. It didn’t fit into stereotypes or a conventional story arc. Really, the movie was essentially about nothing…the first of its kind really in that way. The film was about the in-between moments. Hitchcock is famous for saying, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Well, that’s Diner – all the dull parts, except they’re not boring!

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A huge reason that the film worked was the casting. They were all young actors, fairly inexperienced. Guttenberg was 22, Barkin was 26. Reiser was 24, a young stand up comedian in New York, who wasn’t even trying to audition. Apparently, his improvisations were almost effortless. Levinson apparently would let the camera keep rolling when the scripted scene had ended, though it was sometimes by accident – he would forget to say cut!

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Recently, I wrote about Breaking Away, another sleeper classic, which starred Daniel Stern. Just as he stole scenes in that movie, Stern uses his limited plot in Diner and knocks it out of the park! One of his best scenes is between Barkin and Stern. Stern’s character is yelling at his wife for not putting his record back in the right place – it needs to be in alphabetical order and by genre. She can’t understand why he’s yelling at her. I just want to say I’ve heard the exact same conversation between my parents – except it’s about movies, not records.

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There’s also a scene where Guttenberg gives his fiance a football trivia quiz. If she doesn’t pass the test, the wedding is off. Most of the guys come to his house, keeping score outside the room. It’s pure hilarity.

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Rourke’s character, Boogie, is really the center story though. He’s a gambler and a smooth talker. He’s always trying to get the guys to take a bet – one involving getting a girl to grab his penis at the movie theater. He somehow accomplishes what he wants to and gets away with it. And yet, despite his character’s asshole-ish antics, he’s likable. When the going gets tough and Boogie’s about to do something horrible, he backs out.

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Kevin Bacon, in an early role, is probably at his best. He’s nuts and not too well drawn out, and yet, he’s real. As Fenwick, Bacon is almost manic, not yet having established his heart throb image.

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The film is obviously from a very male perspective. The only well drawn female character is Stern’s wife, played by Ellen Barkin. I have to acknowledge that. But, I would also say that, at its core, the film is about friendship and that theme is universal. It’s also about a life transition. These men may be great one day, but they’re still, in many ways, boys. Guttenberg still has his mother making him sandwiches, much to his chagrin.

Film critic Pauline Kael apparently reviewed the film before its release and gave it a rave review. According to Barkin, the studio didn’t want to release the film. They did so mostly cause they thought they would look like even bigger idiots if they didn’t release it.

A few years ago, it was announced that the film was being made into a musical – the music to be written by Sheryl Crow. I’m not sure what’s going on with it, but it did have some sort of a run…here’s a look below at what it was like.

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I go back to this film every once in a while because somehow, in its simplicity, it caught something special. Maybe it was the people or the script or the time it was made…I don’t really know. Without a doubt, it’s a special film where the stars just aligned – which is hilarious considered it was made for 5 million dollars and only made 15 million. In a documentary about the film, Levinson and one of the actors pointed out how specific these characters and this place was and how that makes it more timeless. I agree with that. There was something universal and let’s face it, just entertaining.

If you’ve never seen Diner, it’s well worth a watch. I guarantee you’ll relate to something in it.

Vintage trailer below:

Breaking Away: A Forgotten Classic

I can’t quite remember when I first saw 1979’s Breaking Away, though I do have specific memories of my dad and brother reenacting lines from the movie – specifically Daniel Stern chirping “What’s your major?” and Paul Dooley ranting “Refund! Refund!”

The film always resonated with me, even as a child. But, re-watching the movie as an adult turned out to be a totally different experience. I related so heavily to the characters, even though you could make the case that the film is very much from a male point of view. The female roles in the film are very limited and not really very important. But, great stories and likable characters transcend gender and this film has both.

In case you haven’t seen it, Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates and written by Steve Tesich, follows a group of four boys just out of high school in Bloomington, Indiana. They’re not in college and they’re not working. They’re sort of just bumming around – swimming in the quarry, making fun of the college kids, and generally trying to figure out what they want to do next.

Our protagonist is Dave (Dennis Christopher), an idealistic young man obsessed with Italian culture and their cycling team. His parents, played by the wonderful Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie, are starting to wonder what he’s doing. Side note: Apparently, Barbara Barrie was essential to getting the film made. At the time, she was the biggest name in the cast. Anyway, Dave is in love with Katherine, a college girl. Intimidated by her, he pretends to be Italian and names himself Enrico. No doubt, it catches up to him.

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His friends are Mike (a young Dennis Quaid), Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), and Cyril (Daniel Stern). Mike was the high school quarterback. He’s always looking for a fight, something to prove he’s worth just as much as college kids. Moocher is in love with Nancy, although he lies to his friends constantly, telling them, “He’s not seeing her anymore.” Cyril is sort of the one left out to dry, so to speak. He doesn’t really get much of his own story. But, the story he has Daniel Stern makes the most of.

 

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There’s so much to discuss about the narrative of the film. What I connected to when I recently re-watched it was Dave’s journey and loss of innocence. Dave idolizes this Italian cycling team, but when he finally meets them, they’re assholes – further backing up the old adage “you should never meet your heroes.” His idealism is so intensely relatable and its dissolution is heartbreaking.

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What this film also comments on is the distinction between the classes. Dave’s family is nowhere near rich and Dave’s group of friends are dubbed the cutters by the college kids, not because they cut themselves. In this, cutters is just another word for townies, locals, outcasts. Dave’s dad (Paul Dooley) was working at Dave’s age and never had the option of college, so there’s some resentment there, but at heart, he wants his son to be happy.

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At its heart, the film is about friendship. As confused as these boys are, they have each other to back each other up, to figure their lives out.

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They all get a little hope for the future by the end – Dave tells Katherine the truth, Mike makes up with his brother and Moocher gets married. But, Cyril…well, Cyril gets nothing! I’m sure he does get something – there just wasn’t enough time in the movie for it.

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The end of the film shows the boys in the little 500 bike race in Indiana and I dare you to not cheer for them! The elation of the film’s conclusion is infectious.

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If you’ve never seen Breaking Away, I highly recommend giving it a watch. It’ll make you laugh and cry and cheer – everything a movie is supposed to do! Also, the film won the Academy Award for best screenplay, so…

Vintage trailer below: