Diner (1982): Barry Levinson’s Masterwork

Like George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” Barry Levinson’s “Diner” is an evocative coming-of-age tale, whose characters belong to the director’s generation. Unlike “American Graffiti,” however, “Diner” is an autobiographical film made by an insider who gets the texture right, and without nostalgia.

Set in Baltimore in 1959, the film captures the zeigeist of the era with authentic minutiae. Centering on young men who can’t communicate with women, it provides a look at the sex battle just before the sexual revolution. As Pauline Kael has observed, “Diner” presents the sexual dynamics in the last period of American history, when people could laugh (albeit uneasily) at the gulf between men and women, before the gulf became a public issue to be discussed. The movie isn’t so much about sex as about the quest for sex, the obsession with making out.

Showing true fondness for actors, Levinson brought sympathy and verve to a slice-of-life movie, full of interesting characters. Like George Lucas in “American Graffiti,”, Levinson helped to discover new talent: Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin. Inspired by Fellini’s masterpiece “I Vitelloni,” “Diner” revolves around six men in their twenties who have been buddies since highschool. Though moving in different directions, they still cling to their late night sessions at the Fells Point Diner. The place is functioning like a comedy club, with the boys serving as storytellers taking off from each other.

Levinson doesn’t write like Neil Simon–his conversation is more natural and it’s composed of overlapping jokes that are funny without having punch lines. As a writer, Levinson shows a sensitive ear for nuanced dialogue with lyrical intensity that lift the lines right out of the situation and transcends it.

The boys go out on dates, but then quickly dash back to the diner, where they always have plenty to talk about. When the boys are out with girls they’re nervous, constricted, insecure; they can’t be the same with women as they are with each other. At the diner, where conversations roll on all night, they’re so relaxed that they even sound bright and witty.

Shrevie (Daniel Stern) has nothing to say to his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin), a crass, ordinary yet sensitive girl. Shrevie, who works in a store selling TV sets and refrigerators, asks her not to play with his records because she gets them mixed up. The records represent his sacred private world, and it’s slipping away from him. Shrevie’s outbursts leave Beth emotionally devastated and humiliated. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) lives for football and the Baltimore Colts. He’s scheduled to get married on New Year’s Eve, contingent on one thing, that his fiancee pass a football-trivia test. Eddie wants to make sure that they will be able to communicate after they’re married. The bride’s football exam, with her father judging the fairness of the scoring, is a piece of loony Americana that echoes Jonathan Demme’s TV games in “Melvin and Howard.”

The most charismatic guy is Boogie (Mickey Rourke), a gambler who’s in trouble with his bookie. Boogie works in a beauty parlor but spends most of his time at the diner. He shows tenderness toward women, although he has no connection with them except for sex.

Loyal to his friends, Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a smart if self-destructive dropout who plays reckless jokes that get him arrested. When he’s alone, he watches the College Bowl TV quiz show, beating all the contestants. Fenwick is so infantile that he goes out with a much younger girl. His father won’t bail him out of jail; it’s his buddies who take care of him and shield him.

Levinson doesn’t pretend to know everything about his characters, and he avoids summing them up. Unlike most Hollywood youth movies, “Diner” is so richly detailed that the parents, who are left out of “American Graffiti,” are as multi-layered as their kids. Levinson has influenced many indie directors through his emphasis on dialogue rather than plot, characterization rather than visual style.

Unlike George Lucas, who’s always been enamored of toys, comic books, and special effects, as evidenced in the “Star Wars” and The “Indiana Jones” film series, Levinson is a “sociological” director, a storyteller with a fresh perspective and good ear, but one with less impressive visual perception.

A critical success that suffered from studio indifference, “Diner” later gained a cult following due to its disarming quality and sharp writing. With a growing positive word-of-mouth, through television showings and video rentals, “Diner” entered the collective consciousness and became a breakout kind of American artmovie.

Several coming-of-age indies were inspired by Lucas and Levinson, although the influence manifested itself in the 1990s rather than the 1980s.

End Note

Though highly acclaimed by critics, “Diner” was a moderate commercial success, grossing domestically $14.1 million, and globally $23.2 million.