Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Barry Levinson
Cinematographer: Peter Sova
Producer: Jerry Weintraub
by Jon Cvack
Just today (as of writing this on Jan 19, 2019) on Slate’s Political Gabfest’s “Cocktail Chatter”, David Platz warned the audience about something incendiary he was about to say, following up with the story of watching Raider’s of the Lost Ark (1981) with his kid and his friend for the first time. He describes his memory of the movie the way most of us do - the spectacular effects, adventure, one of his favorites growing up; quickly discovering that he failed to comprehend the barrage of racist and misogynistic elements. All of the non-white characters are bad. The one who isn’t fauns and nearly faints over the fact of getting a peck on the cheek from the white woman. The woman plays little purpose beyond a sex symbol who’s waddling over Jones. John Dickerson even goes on to say how underwhelming the special effects now are. It’s one of the few times I can recall a passionate disagreement with the man. Revisiting the film, I noted some of the problems in my thoughts, but when I think of how this film was made almost forty years ago, I’m willing to forgive. It’s the type of film that serves as a historical document; beloved by most and yet including these offensive elements. It’s also text that people can point to in demonstrating the progression underrepresented groups have made in popular film. Something like this would never be made, and I’m sure at the time most were wondering exactly the big deal was when the fringe academic crowd discussed its whiteness.
The same reassessment is going on for countless other classic films - Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Animal House (1978), License to Drive (1980), Sixteen Candles (1984), and many other 80s(ish) comedies now demonstrate deeply misogynistic elements; often in regards to jokes about rape, or even raping in the case of Animal House. I think so long as the viewer acknowledges these offenses, it’s possible to keep watching these films and appreciate the majority of otherwise decent, or even, good storytelling. It’s similar to the debate of removing the N-word from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885). While I don’t agree with changing art, the intention is noble in and of itself - to make the material accessible to as many people as possible; alienating no group in the process.
Diner is a film I’ve seen two or three times. A movie I very much enjoy and yet never really think to put on first when nostalgic for a taste of the past. I don’t believe I’ve seen it since moving out to LA, making its midwestern feel (though it took place Baltimore) drive it all the more home. Combined with watching this while home for winter break in Chicago, on DVD with my parent’s old 2000s 720 HD flat screen television with no external sound system, and I went down the sentimental k-hole.
The film follows a group of five friends, each in their early 20s and in various stages of their early adulthood. Edward Simmons (Steve Guttenberg) is a facetious neurotic; playing the ignorant victim card and knowing every time he’s doing it. About to get married, he has demanded his fiance pass a 100 question Baltimore Colts trivia test (this is why I always thought the movie took place in Indiana). If she gets less than 60 answers correct, then the wedding is off. Suddenly, his charming and likeable brother Billy (Tim Daly) returns from college, for reasons unknown.
Edward is joined by his groomsmen. “Shrevie” Schreiber (Daniel Stern) is a married man who’s recently come to terms with the fact that him and his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) don’t have anything to talk about; coming to loggerheads when Beth fails to return one of his records to the correct place, as his precisely organized collection embodies his every passion. The town’s local heartthrob is “Boogie” Sheftell (Mickey Rourke), who’s about two years shy of becoming a criminal, currently working as a hairdresser who uses his good looks to hook up with the clientele. The group’s laughs are led by the endless wit of Modell (Paul Reiser), who while being an actor I completely associate with the 80s and early 90s, sinks into the role of a person who always has the best response to any situation. And on the existential end of the spectrum is the super smart “Fed” Fenwick Jr. (Kevin Bacon), who while coming from money deals with severe anxieties about his place in the world; causing him to drop out of college and push his mortality to the utter brink.
We first meet them at the 24 hour diner where they meet up after work or nights of heavy drinking or just for the casual chat. In my town the diner was Sub City, which I never felt cool enough to go to until I finally had one of their sandwiches and realized why it was so popular. In the town over, it was a pancake house called Huck Finn Donuts.
The conversations provide an early dive into pop culture as they do crossword puzzles and talk about music and their lives; talking to a few shadier and older characters that drop in throughout the night. It was while writing this that I realized that, beyond the marriage, there is no clear plot at work. It is simply following each of the five characters as they’re existing within this particular moment in life. Schreiber’s marriage is empty and unfulfilling and each day the problem snowballs. Boogie makes a bad $2,000 bet with a bookie at the diner, and spends the rest of the film trying to get the money. Modell is the nihilist friend who’s content enough with life and grossly sarcastic. Fed is struggling with finding meaning in the world; whether he should go back to school or not. Edward is preparing a test for his fiance to pass, while his brother is struggling to figure out what he wants to do in life.
None of these storylines are all that engaging on their own. They’re economic and feel deeply personal, and while at times they go a bit further than they need to, it’s intercutting these stories with a centralized diner that makes them so brilliant. We come to the diner with one character and leave with another, never getting tired of any of them as their dynamic and relationships pull you in from the first scene. Each performer creates a wonderfully complex character which feels completely true.
There are moments where the jokes breaks and the film shows its age; in which in order to gain some cash Boogie bets everyone that he can get a young woman named Diane (Kelle Kipp) to touch his junk. The two head to the movies, Boogie cuts out the bottom of a popcorn container and places himself inside, waiting for her to grab him. It’s a scene that’s almost shocking when you see it; especially when you realize it’s not for some playful fun or attempt to heat things up, but because he needs as much money as fast as possible. It’s a scene that I’m sure would ruin the movie for many nowadays, and yet going back to that earlier point, I think it’s best if you just pretend it didn’t happen, or close your eyes and ears and ignore it. Beyond this moment, Diner is one of the better early-20 struggle films out there; becoming a genre that would come to dominate pure independent cinema.
BELOW: Chemistry that's off the charts
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