How Diner Rewrote the Rules of the Buddy Comedy
By Robert Silva
Barry Levinson’s ensemble comedy is still a timeless classic — and an improvisational touchstone.
We could talk about the plot of Diner, but what’s the point? This is a comedy of free-floating conversations, lewd acts, ill-advised bets and late-night lounging that make up life for a group of buddies in Baltimore at the end of the 1950s.
The directorial debut of Barry Levinson (The Wizard of Lies, Paterno), Diner captures men caught between boyhood and adulthood — and unprepared for the coming counterculture of the ’60s. They wear suits and ties. Their ideas about life and relationships are traditional, and typical. Simple soul Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is dragged to watch an art film, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and is dumbfounded. “What am I watching?” he asks. “The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”
To be fair, studio execs had a similar reaction to Diner, which was nearly shelved and saved by enthusiastic critics, moviegoers and, as it happened, future filmmakers.
In his book, Avalon; Tin Men; Diner: Three Screenplays, Levinson said of the picture’s realistic style: "I want to make the movie seem as if it's happening in front of you," Diner was hugely influential on the comedies to come, including The Office, Seinfeld and the improvisational bromances of Judd Apatow (who has cited it as his all-time favorite movie).
Among the film’s breakthroughs is its ensemble cast — featuring the preposterously immature Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser and Ellen Barkin — playing young people with a common problem: reality.
As the film opens Eddie (Gutenberg) is preparing for marriage. He’s uncertain about the merits of the institution, but will feel better about his decision if his fiancée can pass a football quiz. His married friend Shrevie (Stern) is reassuring, but not convincing: After two years with his wife Beth (Barkin), they already have nothing to talk about.
The rest of the gang are dedicated to sidestepping adult responsibilities — but probably not for much longer. Bright-but-tormented Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a trust-fund kid estranged from his family, acting out by getting sloshed and smashing windows. College kid Billy (Timothy Daly, The Sopranos) is still settling old scores with high-school enemies, when he learns that he may, gulp, be a father.
Meanwhile, Mickey Rourke steals the show as Boogie, embodying a type often neglected in movies: the gambler who also styles ladies’ hair. (Rourke insisted on doing his own makeup, thus the ample eyeliner). A few bad bets put him in the sights of a local loan shark which, in another movie, would be “the story.” This is not that movie.
In Diner, these conflicts are treated as distractions from what the characters would rather be doing: eating french fries slathered with gravy and arguing about pop culture (“Sinatra or Mathis?”), sex, football, and who gets the last bite of a roast beef sandwich. (The latter, now-classic scene, foreshadows the comic adjudications of Larry David.) What the film does is capture the inarticulate nature of male relationships, in which the best way to know somebody is by resolutely not talking about what’s important. By the end of Diner, we get to know the characters the same way: by sitting back and observing.
Director Barry Levinson has since gone on to bigger subjects. But, whether profiling financial fraudster Bernie Madoff or disgraced football coach Joe Paterno, the common thread with Diner is his ability to reveal the complexity of human character, no matter how seemingly incomprehensible, extraordinary or ordinary.
Decades later, this film about the ‘50s still feels raucous, alive and casually revolutionary. Emphasis on casually.