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An autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1950s Baltimore, Barry Levinson's Diner is over-flowing with terrific dialogue; it's probably the single most quotable picture of the 1980s, with comically drifting conversations that slyly hide the main characters' fears and frustrations.
Levinson's story - about a close-knit group of friends who orchestrate their lives in ways that conveniently side-step the knottier details of growing up - has a subdued, documentary feel to it. But its most realistic element is the minutia-filled banter. This is truly masterful movie dialogue; compare it to the clunky grandstanding of someone like Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994, Dogma, 1999), who's supposed to be good at this sort of thing, and you'll recognize the sublime brilliance of Levinson's achievement.
You're bound to feel a jolt of recognition while watching these guys dissect everything from the ultimate make-out records to the relative merits of the word "nuance." However, unlike TV's Seinfeld (which truly was "about nothing"), the conversations in Diner are believable, and they reveal important information about the people doing the talking.
It's odd that Diner is often described as a simple little movie; it actually contains enough plotlines to fill a Robert Altman picture: Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is about to be married, but decides he can't do it until his fiancée passes a difficult football trivia quiz; Shrevie (Daniel Stern), is already married, but is having problems connecting with his young, restless wife (Ellen Barkin); Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a brilliant guy who's estranged from his wealthy family; Billy (Timothy Daly) isn't completely sure he's ready for marriage, even though he's recently engaged; Modell (Paul Reiser) hangs around the periphery, giving sardonic play-by-play; and Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a lady's man who's in danger of being severely beaten by a loan shark. All of the guys sans girlfriends hang out and shoot the breeze at a local diner.
The diner is based on the very real Hilltop Diner, from the Baltimore of Levinson's adolescence. "I was in the 10th grade when we started going to the Hilltop," Levinson says. "The diner became the place to go after you took your date home. Sometimes you didn't have a good date, and then you couldn't wait to drop her off and get back to the action. You'd make these little excursions out with the girls then run back to the guys." "It was a different time," he says. "It was hanging out and wasting your life...I look back now and wonder what we talked about, and I can't tell you. I don't remember myself as the funny one in the sense of being outgoing funny. All I remember is that it was big, big laughs."
Levinson always felt that the gang's conversations were the key to the film, but the higher-ups at MGM never understood what he was doing. In fact, the first negative comment he received after screening a rough cut at the studio concerned the movie's funniest scene- a lengthy, deeply revealing argument between Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser, over which of them should eat Guttenberg's roast beef sandwich.
"That sandwich scene!" one executive shouted. "Throw it out! Get on with the story!" Levinson tried to explain that the scene actually was the story, that the movie was about close friends who talked about everything except friendship. He took a stand for his purposefully "inarticulate language" and the scene somehow managed to stay in. It's a good thing, too- had he caved in and cut every sequence that seemed to stop the momentum, there would hardly be any movie left to watch.
"I want to make the movie seem as if it's happening in front of you," he once said, and he's never again accomplished that feat as readily as he did with Diner. "I have a difficult time with a lot of other people's movies because my ear doesn't believe them a lot...in life, conversations aren't very accurate or focused. We are fairly inarticulate- I know I am. We get screwed up, we go sideways. You don't end your sentence before I talk; there's overlap. A certain amount of improvisation occurs." Levinson's faith in his own instincts was vindicated when Diner, which was dumped by MGM upon release, paid for itself and then some, and earned terrific reviews. Levinson was even nominated for an Oscar® for Best Screenplay, although he lost to John Briley, who wrote a slightly higher-profile picture called Gandhi. There was no time-stopping argument over who gets to eat the roast beef sandwich in that one.
Producer: Jerry Weintraub Directed by: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Music: Bruce Brody and Ivan Kral
Editing: Stu Linder
Art Direction: Leon Harris
Set Design: R. Chris Westlund
Costumes: Gloria Gresham
Cast: Steve Guttenberg (Eddie), Daniel Stern (Shrevie), Mickey Rourke (Boogie), Kevin Bacon (Fenwick), Timothy Daly (Billy), Ellen Barkin (Beth), Paul Reiser (Modell), Kathryn Dowling (Barbara), Michael Tucker (Bagel), Jessica James (Mrs. Simmons), Colette Blonigan (Carol Heathrow).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara