Saturday, January 2, 2016

Diner (1982)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg                              Writer: Barry Levinson
Music: Bruce Brody                                          Cinematography: Peter Sova
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon

His first directorial effort, Diner is a very nice slice of life, coming of age, historical piece by Barry Levinson. There were lots of these kinds of films being produced at the time beginning with George Lucas’s American Graffiti, and along with some dismal failures like John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7 there was also some excellent work like the early parts of Michal Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and especially the film Breaking Away. Levinson’s film is nominally a comedy, which means that it’s not trying to be funny but allows its characters to inject humor into the situations through their behaviors and conversation. The film was based on Levinson’s experience growing up in Baltimore as he and his friends gradually moved into adulthood. The film almost wasn’t released because executives at MGM didn’t really understand what the film was supposed to be doing. In many ways, this is the film that prefigures Seinfeld--a television show about nothing. What the film is actually about is the relationship between the characters, shown through their dialogue with each other. And while the film was only moderately successful at the time, it has gradually gained in critical and commercial notoriety through the years. Of course Levinson was nominated for an Academy Award that year for his screenplay--already his second such nomination at the time--and he would eventually win the Oscar for his direction of Rain Man.

The film begins at a Baltimore high school Christmas party in 1959 that is attended by a group of former graduates. Mickey Rourke is the soft-spoken ladies man, with ties to the mob and a vague desire to become a lawyer. Steve Guttenberg is a sports nut who is about to get married, provided his fiancée can pass a football test. Paul Reiser is the introspective intellectual who has a Jewish sensibility of never stating exactly what he wants, while Kevin Bacon is the rich, juvenile delinquent of the group. Daniel Stern, who is already married, is still part of the group though one wonders for how much longer, while Tim Daly has already graduated college and feels like the odd man out. The film centers on conversations that happen in the local Diner as the distinctions between the characters and the circumstances of their lives unfold in the process. In terms of plot, it’s fairly minimal. Guttenberg is afraid he may be settling down to early, especially when he sees Stern’s marriage to Ellen Barkin is not exactly wonderful because she doesn’t understand his obsession with records. Rourke is in over his head with gambling debts and Michael Tucker eventually has to bail him out. Bacon is an angry rich kid with no motivation other than vandalism. And Daly has come back to town early for the wedding because he has gotten one of his high school girl friends pregnant and he wants to convince her to marry him.

In The A List essay by Peter Rainer he calls the film a “minor miracle,” because of the way that it is simultaneously “thoroughly familiar and yet, because of its artistry and perception, seems totally fresh.” The word “totally” may be stretching things but it certainly does defy expectations by the restraint it shows, which seems the most captivating thing about the film today. Indeed, it is the surprises--that Guttenberg is a virgin, or that alky Kevin Bacon knows all of the answers on a college quiz show, or when Rourke doesn’t bed a willing Barkin to win a bet--not the genre expectations, that make the film so enjoyable. But perhaps that is the “perception” that Rainer is speaking of. One of the other elements of the film that Rainer rightly explains is the uneasy relationship between the sexes. But where he says that the women “feel excluded from the men’s lives without really wanting to take part in their rituals,” this is only a half truth, for there are moments that bespeak a genuine desire of the women to connect. One is the overt willingness of Guttenberg’s future wife to take the football test in the first place, and another is the more subtle opening that Barkin gives to Stern to enjoy the music with her rather than obsess over the minutia of the recordings themselves. Rainer is right on, however, in his final observation of the film, that it “reveals its people for who they are and also what they will become.” The beauty of Diner is, in fact, the sadness of the loss of vibrancy these characters once possessed as they go forward into a much more uncertain future.

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