The first of Barry Levinson‘s tetralogy of Baltimore movies (the others include Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights) was also his directorial debut. The man who eventually brought us Rain Man, The Natural and Good Morning, Vietnam, hit one out of the park on his first try. Diner went on to compete for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (losing to Gandhi) and jump started the careers of virtually every actor in it.
|The guys hanging out|
Paul Reiser, Tim Daly and Ellen Barkin made their debuts in it, but even the rest of the cast were virtual unknowns at the time. Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon round out the cast as a bunch of guys who spend most of their time just jawing over fries and gravy at a local diner.
Each character has something going on as they transition from high school graduation to life in the real world. I’m not sure exactly how old the characters are supposed to be here, but none of them are very many years out of high school, and at least one hasn’t matured much since graduation.
The central theme is how each is contending with life on the outside of the hallowed halls of school. You have the guy who got married just out of high school. You have the law student who has a serious gambling addiction. You have the guy who is planning his own marriage, but wants to make sure his betrothed is worthy of him so is planning to test her on her knowledge of his beloved Baltimore Colts. (The movie takes place in 1959, when the Colts were still in Baltimore). You have the wannabe comedian. You have the guy who is struggling with the concept of maturity. And you have the guy who just returned to town for the wedding and may have a marriage in his future, at least if he can convince the girl to do so.
It is Christmastime, 1959. Six guys who spend most of their free time palling around with each other, always seem to end up at the local diner.
Edward Simmons “Eddie” (Steve Guttenberg)
Eddie is on the verge of getting married. But Eddie is a diehard Baltimore Colts fan. So much so that he thinks his wife-to-be should at least have a passing knowledge of the team and its history. (Can you see the potential “football widow” in the future?) He has a test he plans for his betrothed and if she doesn’t pass, well, its “adios, muchacha” for him. Seriously. He is going to cancel the wedding if she can’t get a passing grade on his Colts test. I know plenty of Dallas Cowboys fans who are insane about their team, but I don’t know any who would pass on a wife just because she was not as avid a fan.
Steve Guttenberg is the only one of these guys I thought was miscast. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen way too many movies where Guttenberg was a more rational down-to-earth kind of guy. Not that he doesn’t pull it off well. It was just hard for me to imagine the actor in the role. Myself, I would have switched Guttenberg with Daniel Stern in their respective roles. I could imagine Stern as an obsessive fan. Of course, that could be because Stern did a turn as an obsessive fan in Celtic Pride.
Laurence Shrieber “Shrevie” (Daniel Stern)
|Shrevie (w/ a customer at the store)|
Shrevie is the sole married man of the bunch. He got marred to his high school sweetheart, Beth (Ellen Barkin) fresh out of high school. He works days in a TV sales shop. Nights he hangs out with his friends at the diner, and occasionally harassing Beth because she can’t quite grasp his obsessive organization of his records. Which of course Beth doesn’t quite get and is moved to tears by Shrevie’s tirade.
Robert Sheftell “Boogie” (Mickey Rourke):
Boogie is a law student by day. But his real passion is gambling. I get the feeling this guy would gamble on whether a particular chocolate had a nougat center or a Brazil nut. He has numerous sure bets that he tries to get the other fellows in on, as well as betting on whether he can score with the local “ice queen.” He is in deep doo-doo with the local bookie however, owing $2000 (at a time when that much would almost pay for a new car…) and is constantly trying to recoup his losses with even more elaborate bets. Don’t miss the scene where Boogie tries to pass off a different woman as the one he bet the guys he could get into bed with.
William Howard “Billy” (Tim Daly):
|Billy (w/ Eddie)|
Billy is the guy who successfully left town and made it in the big world. He came back for Eddie’s wedding. He’s the one with the most marbles in the game, but even he has a problem. It seems he’s got a girl pregnant. Chivalrous or not, he wants to do the right thing and marry her, but she is reluctant. She’s an independent woman, at a time when that was like being a leper.
Timothy Fenwick “Fen” (Kevin Bacon) and Modell (Paul Reiser):
|Fen and Modell|
Fen is the most immature of the bunch. He has no sense of rational behavior. Probably somewhat due to his being a bit on the rich side. At least, he has a trust fund that his brother governs and doles out money to him every month. Which made it easy just to drop out of college and be a ne’er-do-well for a living. But Fen is probably the genius of the bunch, too. Witness the scene where Fen watches an episode of College Bowl. (If you don’t know what that was, it was a quiz program in which two college teams competed to answer trivia questions. Sort of like Jeopardy!, but College Bowl questions make Jeopardy! look like Trivial Pursuit).
Modell doesn’t make a big splash in the film, although he is a driving presence. A joker and also a mooch, he represents a side of the gang that is not readily apparent. He gets the last laugh in the final scene, though.
The beautiful Ellen Barkin makes a couple of scenes stand out as Beth, Shrevie’s wife. Michael Tucker plays a good turn as sort of a father figure/big brother to the screw-up Boogie. The fact is there is not a single uninteresting character in this movie. Even in crowd scenes you get some “real” people. It almost feels like we’ve just picked these guys out at random in a crowd and decided to follow them around for a few days.
This is, in my opinion, a hidden gem. I’m sure quite a few of you have never even heard of it. But trust me, if you’re looking for a break from shoot-em-up westerns, or bug-eyed monsters from another world, this is an excellent way to spend the evening. You will never be so intrigued by just dialogue, sans action ever again. Character before plot, and yes, there is a happy ending.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.