Diner (1982): Barry Levinson’s Stunning Directing Debut

Barry Levinson’s sensibility as a filmmaker has been unmistakably shaped by his hometown, Baltimore, the setting of his personal film trilogy, Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon. Both tough and funny, the trilogy reeks with the smell of ordinary lives and gritty realism.

A stunning directorial debut, Diner is an affectionate, semi-autobiographical evocation of coming-of-age in the late 1950s. As the ultimate male-bonding film, it instantly established itself as the American counterpart to Fellini’s masterpiece I Vitelloni, a film that continues to exert impact on American movies, most recently on Palookaville and Swingers.

A bunch of men in their early twenties are beginning to move in different directions, but they continue to hang out together, still clinging to their late night sessions at the Fells Point Diner. When they’re together, the boys are so relaxed that they sound worldly and even quick-witted. However, when the boys are out with girls, they’re nervous and constricted.

Levinson showed a sensitive ear for the nuance of authentic conversations, as they take place in all-night sessions. The movie isn’t so much about sex as the quest of sex–typical male obsessions with scoring. Diner provides an intriguing look at the eternal battle between men and women just before the sexual revolution, arguably the last era in American history when people could joke about it.

At the diner, the boys are storytellers, taking off from each other, feeding each other lines, playing simultaneously the dual roles of the performers and the viewers. There are snappy jokes but there are no punchy lines.

A high-spirited, naturalistic slice of life, full of individually fleshed characters. Levinson digged deep inside into the characters, which basically belong to his own generation. Authentic minutiae that captures the mood and look of Baltimore, circa l959, and the half a dozen male characters who find it impossible to communicate with women.

One of the film’s distinctive aspects is that the marginal characters (the adult world) are also fully rounded–the parents are not the one-dimensional, villainous caricatures one encounters in most youth movies.

A critical success that suffered from studio indifference and poor marketing, Diner somehow managed to acquire a cult following. The movie never got the audience it deserved, despite unanimous critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. However, positive word-of-mouth–kept growing through repeated TV showings and video rentals until Diner entered the collective consciousness and became a break-out kind of an art movie, emulated by many young filmmakers.

Unlike Scorsese or De Palma, Levinson isn’t a “visual director. His serio-comic sociological sensibility recalls the work of Paul Mazursky around the time of Next Stop Greenwich Village and Unmarried Woman. Like Mazursky, Levinson is a raconteur with plenty of fresh stories to relate.

Like Mazursky, Levinson adores actors–and greatly depends on them. As a director who’s also an actor, he has shown true fondness for his performers. Diner alone brought to the forefront a whole new cohort of eccentric actors: Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenburg, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser.