Other than having possibly the worst poster tag line in the history of cinema (see above poster image for what I mean), I am proud to report finding a charming little gem of a film that I likely would never have watched if it weren’t for this blog (even though it’s been an integral part of my 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon tactics for years now). Perhaps it’s ironic that I’ve never had any desire to watch director Barry Levinson’s debut picture, Diner, when I recently enjoyed his cutting political satire, Wag the Dog, with such fervor (weirdly, that was only three movies ago after a year and a half of no Barry Levinson films). Praise the heavens then that Barry Levinson’s subversion of the retro coming of age genre (Dazed and Confused, Stand by Me, American Graffiti) was much more than the cliche period drama I was expecting it to be.

In 1959 Baltimore, six friends facing their mid-2os struggle against their inner demons and the challenges of finally growing up. Shrevie (Home Alone‘s Daniel Stern) is realizing too late that sexual passion isn’t going to keep his marriage alive for ever and that he and his wife (Tender Mercies‘ Ellen Barkin) ultimately have nothing in common. Boogie (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Mickey Rourke) is a womanizer with a serious gambling problem that threatens to destroy his life when he loses $2000 on what he thought was a sure bet. Goofball Eddie (Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenberg) is getting married but only if his fiancee passes an absurdly difficult test on the history of the Baltimore Colts (side note. didn’t realize they were ever called that) while his best man Billy (Wings’ Tim Daly) tries to convince his pregnant not-quite-a-girlfriend to marry him. Throw in the increasingly self-destructive Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) and the wise-cracking Modell and you have the ingredients for 1950s dysfunction.

Of course, plot descriptions like that are why I wasn’t excited to see a film that I was essentially unfamiliar with other than its role as the launching pad for the careers of Bacon, Rourke, and Guttenberg (it’s really weird using the latter in the same sentence as the first two). It comes from the same school as the coming of age films I mentioned earlier, but it’s honestly the anti-American Graffiti. Imagine if Dazed and Confused had a depressed and cynical older brother who doesn’t think life is completely miserable but finds nostalgia to be an utter load of bullshit; you now have an idea of how Diner operates. Although, the vast majority of Netflix user reviews for Diner praise its nostalgia factor (I think they’re confused by the stellar 50s soundtrack) so maybe I’m completely missing the point of the film.

Because unlike many of the films I mentioned, Diner isn’t about trying to capture the feel of a decade. Change the soundtrack, outfits, and occasional reference, and the film could have been set as late as the 1980s. It also isn’t about trying to capture implicit parallels between the era it takes place and when it was actually made (though as I just said, they are there). Instead, it’s just a character drama (and an obviously highly autobiographical one at that). Characters either grow or they don’t. They come to terms with their new roles in the adult world, and the film captures something intangibly true about the friendships that define men. This is very much a “bromance” film, and with its sports-obsessed, sex-crazed, testosterone-fueled leads, I could easily see the film alienating or being inherently unappealing to a female audience.

It doesn’t hurt that the film’s dialogue is  at an almost Aaron Sorkin level of natural and snappy. If you’re a guy and you’re in your 20s, you either talk just like the guys in this film and spend most of your time getting into the same types of shenanigans or you know people who fit that bill. There’s a scene early in the film where the group is debating whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis is the better musician. Before long, it devolves into yet another discussion of sexual appetite and methods. I can’t help but think the visual layout of this scene and the tempo of the banter would come to bear on the famous Madonna conversation in Reservoir Dogs. Or there’s the moment when Shrevie and his wife finally have the fight they’ve been avoiding for years as he explains to her the subtlety of his tastes in music (and how his music is organized) that is nothing but subtext for the lack of communication in their marriage.

The film has a distinct visual style that once again specifically avoids the need to perfectly capture the romanticized aesthetic of the 1950s. Where many films in the 1950s slave over nailing the colorful period outfits, the pastel colors, and the gorgeous cars (to be fair, the film does nail the cars), the movie uses its visuals to reinforce the darkness and despair creeping at the corner of every scene. By the 1980s, Baltimore began to feel an economic squeeze that started in the 60s and 70s, and you see some of that hopelessness in the film. It doesn’t scream for your attention, but if you know anything about the cultural history of B-More, you can feel the hurt in the frames. Almost all of the scenes are either shot at night or in run-down interiors. The two noticeable outdoor day scenes only reinforce some of the class themes at the edges of the film.

Like all of the great films I mentioned that Diner tries to subvert, the movie knows that even when you’re trying to break the mold, a fantastic ensemble cast is stillthekey to success, and Diner hits a home run. Even a quick look at Mickey Rourke’s pre-career implosion films as well as his career resurrection roles (The Wrestler, Sin City) shows you that he should have been one of the biggest stars of his generation. He had baby-faced good looks and a fierce, naturalistic acting style that would have made Brando and James Dean proud. It shouldn’t be shocking that he’s the best part of the film. He’s kind of a dick and he’s got a line of horse-shit a mile long when it comes to the ladies, but his natural sensitivity and awareness of his own shortcomings make Boogie the most compelling character in a film full of well-crafted protagonists.

Kevin Bacon gives Rourke a run for his money in an explosive turn in one of his first film roles. His Fenwick is a viciously angry and flippant young man that might also be savant-style genius, and Bacon’s career as the arrogant, seething villain or foil got its start here. As with all of the characters though, he never once felt one-dimensional or crudely drawn (even when the film’s plot was more impressionistic than actually narrative-driven). I mostly think of Daniel Stern as the inept bad guy in Home Alone, but his tale was perhaps the most relatable (if not the most entertaining) in the film. Stern finds all of the joy and passion that Shrevie feels when he’s with his friends and then contrasts that with his ennui and dispassion when he’s with his wife. Tim Daly also delivers a star turn  as Billy who can’t seem to understand why his girlfriend doesn’t want to marry him and releases his anxiety in a raucous scene at a strip club with one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

The film does wind up a little uneven for all of its strengths. The ending is wound up a little too neatly (something I suspect might have been the result of executive meddling), and on rare (but sadly there) occasions, the movie can get a wee bit heavy-handed in its message. Still, those are all small prices to pay for a director/writer in his debut feature making one of the most refreshing coming of age tales of the 80s. Perhaps it’s because the characters should have already grown-up by this point in their lives. Maybe, it’s the darkness. It’s most certainly at least partially the cast. Whatever reasons it takes to get you to watch this seriously under-rated film, do so if you want a great take on one of my favorite genres of film.

Final Score: A-

 

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