Movies That Rule: Diner (1982)
I remember nights at my hometown Diner, Chris’s Family Restaurant to be specific, where we sat, debated politics, girls, and lifestyle for hours on end. I also remember my time at college, sitting at whatever diner it was with one of my best friends for four hours at a time. The bars in my college town closed at 2 AM, and afterward six (or eight or ten) of us rushed to the diner right after last call to pile on over-easy eggs, homefries, toast, bacon, and coffee on top of all of the Coors Light. That is, of course, if we weren’t getting laid. We’d sit, with an ever dwindling crowd, until it was my best friend and I, and we’d discuss everything under the sun.
If you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, the diner represents something more than just a restaurant where you can order breakfast, lunch or dinner into the wee-small hours. It’s almost a cathedral, where whatever you say to your friends becomes sacred, and it’s understood that the things you say over that eight cup of coffee that’s sure to keep you up until 10:00 the next morning, will remain secret. I can barely remember any of the countless sorority mixers I attended throughout college, but I can remember the conversations I had at any number of diners. Another buddy and I tried to conquer a series of diners in high school all in one night, but once we hit the comfortable linoleum seats at Chris’s Family Restaurant after just one earlier stop, we couldn’t move for three hours. We talked about music (Wilco), politics (Al Gore…yeah, hilarious, I know), and movies (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). When we left, it was 4:00 in the morning, and we were still wide awake.
Barry Levinson’s Diner captures this bizarre nostalgia so eerily I feel as though I’m sitting in the booth with his characters. I’ve had all these conversations before, yet, they never become less interesting. Diner is fundamentally about male bonding done in a familiar setting to anyone who grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, or Delaware. But, the movie also strikes a deeper chord because the conversations are that realistic to any man under the age of 30.
The place is Baltimore, the year is 1959, nearly a year before Kennedy took the White House, several before he’d be gunned down in Dallas. The characters live in what many view as a time of innocence, existing much like the high-school grads in American Graffiti, always unsure of the next step, never certain whether to defend their hometown or fly east to Middlebury and begin an entirely separate life. They face common issues—still growing up when they should be grown up already, splintering friendships, and most notably, a fear of women and commitment. When Eddie, Boogie, Fenwick, Modell, Shrevie, and Billy meet at the Fell’s Point Diner, these conversations all explode out in the open, in something that feels out of a Bruce Springsteen ballad. They start out slowly, with bizarre comparisons between Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra and jokes about their lacking sex lives, but eventually find themselves entering into more “serious” discourse about females.
It’s summed up best in a scene mid-way through the picture. Eddie remarks to Shreevie, after a simple heartfelt exchange, “You always got the guys at the diner.” Yet, as the movie draws to a close, we realize that there may be lasting friendship, but these men might not always have the diner, their place of sacred conversation. Levinson’s decision to set the film in 1959 seems relevant for this reason. As the ‘50s draw to a close, and massive changes begin to take place on the American political landscape, quiet conversation between men seems to be a fading phenomenon. From my experience (and from probably every other man’s experience), this is wickedly untrue, but watching the movie, knowing the country’s on the cusp of revolution, you can’t help but entertain the idea.
I began with my own experience because the diner is truly that important to men of a certain age, and is probably just as important in times of political turmoil. Unlike a bar where the goal is to either get drunk, meet women (or both), the diner is a place constructed for bullshitting. No one’s ever rolling in peacocking like Mystery, trying to meet women over some ham and cheese omelets and garlic bread.
Levinson, early on, introduces us to a coterie, all with serious problems. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is about to get married, but refuses to tie the knot until his fiancé passes a comprehensive football quiz (and his dad seems to support it—he brags during the quiz about the tough questions he contributed himself).
Shreevie (Daniel Stern), a stereo and television salesman, is already married to a gorgeous woman (Ellen Barkin), but can’t hold a two minute conversation with her, and never considers that she might be on his “intellectual” level when it comes to important things, like, say, Pat Boone records.
Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a womanizer with a ton of gambling debt, and makes ridiculous bets (over how far he can make it with girls, usually) with his friends to try to make up the difference.
Billy (Tim Daly) is in love with a quiet, attractive girl, but the one night they spent together may have to serious issues neither of them are ready to approach.
Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a perpetual child, drinking too much, refusing to finish college or work in the family business, and making ends meet through his meager trust fund.
Modell (Paul Reiser) is a hilarious, but minor character—his major problem is that he’s always broke and can’t get a ride home from the diner.
Even as the men face these harrowing problems, the diner’s the easiest escape. In the opening scenes, we see most of the main characters hanging out at what looks like a five year class reunion. They’re in what I’d call ‘comfortable stasis.’ Fenwick is in the basement of the club breaking windows, and Boogie comes to stop him, asking him casually what happened to his date.
“I gave her away,” Fenwick says with a give-a-shit smirk.
“What are you, the fuckin’ Salvation Army?” Boogie asks.
It turns out, Fenwick’s sold his date to another guy for five dollars. In the end, he still leaves with her and pulls a hilarious prank on his friends. The more humane joke they play on him seconds after is just as funny. This scene, like most of them, always ends with a typical promise: “I’ll see you guys later at the diner.”
And every “big” scene in the pic is more or less a set-up for a later conversation at the diner. Shreevie, not caring that he’s married, plans on dropping his wife off and going to out all night to smoke Pall Malls and eat club sandwiches. Fenwick, after giving his date a ride home, will do the same. Boogie, enrolled in law school, tells people he has to study at night, but ends up going to the diner until the sun comes up, enthralled by slice-of-life dialogue Levinson provides his actors with. When Billy catches an early train home from graduate school, the guys all leave the diner, pick him up at the station, and go right back to eat another greasy meal. These initial scenes, taking up just the first 20 minutes of running time, are all we need to feel involved with every character and in turn get involved in the pic.
Of course, Diner is above all about men who are grossly afraid of women and commitment. While it lets the guys converse the way my friends and I used to, it always returns to the topic of women, consistently hinting at more serious points through roundabout dialogue. Shreevie, one of the best characters in the film, cannot find a way to relate to his wife. Their marriage consists of sex and argument—when Eddie asks him, matter-of-factly, in a phenomenal scene, “Shreev, you happy with your marriage or what?,” he must pause for a few seconds, sigh, and hesitantly respond. He has plenty of philosophical thoughts on marriage, but doesn’t quite know what to make of his marriage and how to reconcile the glaring differences between himself and his wife.
As both men, friends for probably a decade or so, sit on the hoods of their cars, he quietly mulls over the idea in his head, staring into the twilight. He isn’t happy, but kindly covers up the truth to spare his soon-to-married friend. He speaks of earlier times in his relationship when everything was about sex—when the only thing that concerned them was whether someone’s parents would be out of town so they could fuck. Now, in their row home, he wakes up everyday next to her, realizes he can have her whenever he wants, and finds he has precious little to say.
If Shreevie is unhappy with his marriage, we see Eddie setting himself up for a very similar life. Just days before his wedding, he’s still standing outside the movie theatre, casually telling Fenwick he’d “give up [his] life” to have a hot blonde Boogie’s taken interest in. Since he spends life gabbing his nights away at the diner and watching one guy eat the entire left side of the menu (I mean, he really eats the whole left side, including the fried chicken dinner—it’s a humorous scene), obsessing over the Baltimore Colts, he’s having a tough time imagining what things’ll be like tied to the ol’ ball-and-chain. His plan: a football quiz. The scene where he quizzes his fiancé, who never actually appears in the film (besides in voice), is one of my favorites in all of ‘80s cinema.
The overall goal is obvious to the viewer: he wants to turn her into one of his guy friends. It’s the same with many of the guys. Eddie sees that Shreevie isn’t particularly happy in his marriage because he can’t sit down and even speak to his wife about anything meaningful. When Shreevie gets into an argument with his wife about the alphabetization of his record collection, he screams “That’s your problem. You never ask me what’s on the flip side!” We see exactly what Shreevie wants later in one of Diner‘s funniest scenes—as Shreevie rides shotgun in Fenwick’s car, the two quiz each other on music trivia naming the flip-sides, labels, and label colors of famous 1950s hits. Shreevie’s dilemma is likely the toughest since he has no interest in his wife, her interests, or feelings. He suprisingly values a carefree flake like Fenwick over her. And he’s never once asked her what’s on the flip side, but at the diner that’s never really important as they relish their misunderstandings of the women in their lives.
On a side note, I did enjoy the comment Shreevie made about how every record in his collection meant something to him, and that he remembered exactly what song was playing when he met his wife. To me, that foreshadowed an ending where they both try to patch things up (they do…oh shit, I gave everything away!). Shreevie’s not altogether different than High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon, a guy who loves his record collection and record store because he can organize it, keep it in pristine order. Neither of them can understand why women can’t be as simple as their record collections.
The rest of the guys aren’t in such dire straits when it comes to commitment, but none, besides Billy, even pretend to understand women. If there’s one solid, moral center in the film, it’s Billy because he actually cares about a woman more deeply than she cares about him. Barbara, someone he’s been friends with for years, is likely pregnant with his child after one drunken fling a few cities away. As he approaches her in a church after a couple of quick but touching scenes together in the radio station where she works, he says he loves her. She doesn’t buy it, and challenges him: “Is that why you came back early? To propose?” Billy doesn’t know.
In fact, he probably hadn’t even thought about the words they’d exchange before he started talking. This scene shows that, no matter how mature he seems on the outside, he’s still tied to his group and their fading worldviews. He came back to see his friends, play pool with Eddie, party, and chill out at the diner for a week or two. Yet, out of all the guys, he’s the most advanced, the one most likely to leave Baltimore and never come back. He’s in graduate school and actually trying to do the right thing while the rest of the guys banter about Eddie’s football quiz and Boogie’s sex advances. In a telling scene in the county jail after a wonderfully funny ordeal with ‘the manger’ (it has to be seen to be believed), Eddie shrugs off the idea of Barbara’s pregnancy: take her back to school, get your degree, get married, get a job, have the kid, he muses. The best part of the scene is not the fight Billy almost engages in with a drunken inmate, but rather his exchange with Eddie, who’s blind to the fact that Billy’s love might have a life of her own.
“What about her job?” Billy asks seriously, after Eddie spells out what sounds like a legitimate plan.
Eddie struggles for a second to regain his bearings before joking “Why’d you have to bring her into it?” His idea of coexistence is again the same as Shreevie’s—why bring the woman into it? While Eddie doesn’t value Barbara’s job, Billy tries his hardest to, and that, I think, represents the growing rift between the men. Even if Billy does wildly immature things (he punches a man he’s been holding a grudge against for six years right outside the movie theatre, completely unprovoked), in these three minutes, we see them facing down different paths.
Boogie, the funniest, most sexually experienced character in the movie, is equally great. As played by Mickey Rourke, he’s the standout of the entire lot, handsome, charming, but wildly insecure. Working at a beauty parlor by day, pretending to excel at Law School by night, his life revolves around the bets he makes at the diner with his friends.
“I’m taking out Carol Heathrow tomorrow,” he says coyly, excited for the date. He quickly adds that he can get her to give him a dry handy (in a movie theatre, no less), and wagers with his friends on the outcome.
“The only hand on your pecker is going to be your own,” Fenwick says in jest. It’s probably true. Carol Heathrow, the town sexpot, is dumber than dogshit, but great looking and easier than pre-algebra. After Boogie takes her out and devises a crackpot idea to get her to touch his dick, things backfire, if only for a surprisingly short time. Later, after the initial debacle, Boogie somehow lands a second date and thinks he can get her to sleep with him. He bets his friends fifty dollars apiece that he’ll go to bed with her, they all bet against him, and two friends hide in the apartment closet to “verify” it.
These scenes, again, provide a serious comedic take on what men at age 23 or 24 consider important. Look at the conversations Fenwick, Shreevie, and Eddie have about the movie theatre bet or the supposed sex bet. They talk as if wagering on Boogie’s sex-capades was as important as politics, science or religion (which, I guess, it might be). When Fenwick shows up at Shreevie’s place of work, they discuss the matter with epic seriousness.
Boogie is probably my favorite character in Diner, but it’s the situations and people that surround him that make the film uproariously funny. Rourke is great on screen—smooth, grimy, but ultimately likable, so much so, that we’re actually rooting for him most of the time. He exudes hipness, or tries to. When Eddie asks him whether he prefers Mathis or Sinatra, Boogie quickly replies, with a smile, “Presley.” Rourke plays off of the entire cast and does a hell of a job. What’s more, Boogie’s obsession with sex, and the fact that he bets on the act like a horse race, makes Shreevie’s fixation on his record collection seem unexpectedly mature.
Eventually the film culminates—there’s Eddie’s football quiz, a couple of “Heathrow bets” (as Boogie’s friends aptly name them) and a great scene in a strip club where Billy and Eddie encourage the band on stage to “pick up the beat.” The latter is wonderful. As both men sit at a hamburger joint with one of the dancers minutes later, she shares some very basic, sound advice with both of them. It’s even better that the ‘advice’ doesn’t seem forced, but a logical step in the screenplay, driving toward a predictable but pitch-perfect (and quite positive) finale.
I learned recently that Barry Levinson filmed the conversations at the diner after the rest of the movie so that the cast shared a realistic, friendly camaraderie. What an excellent idea. The body language and conversation is scarily natural. Watch the scenes where the six guys are the only people left in the booths and they splinter off into separate conversations. Boogie and Eddie discuss sex—not boringly or self-importantly, but frankly and, I may add, hilariously.
“Yeah, I did some screwing around,” Eddie says hesitantly, trying to convince Boogie that he’s as ‘experienced’ as him and falling flat.
“Oh my God, you’re a virgin,” Boogie jokes, swigging sugar out one of those huge dispensers. (I think those are now defunct; I haven’t seen those big sugar gaskets in almost four years.) It leaves you chuckling for a minute or two, the randomness of the whole thing. I remember a night at my hometown diner where three of us sat at the table and talked about sex and swigged sugar in the same way for absolutely no reason. It just seemed kinda funny—I can’t believe the movie even got this minute shit right.
Diner is one of my absolute favorite movies because of the endless chitchat, sure, but also because the characters take themselves so seriously. Being 23, I identify with these characters, and all of their bullshit schemes and night-long chatter. I admire the film because its characters pursue these dialogues with such dogged conviction. The inside jokes are funny—even if there are a ton of words wasted, it doesn’t matter. “Cut and fuck, $2.50,” Billy jokes to Boogie in an aside about his beauty parlor gig early on. The comment is entirely meaningless, but perfectly placed, giving everything in the film a feeling of spontaneity. It’s the kind of comment my best buddy would make at the diner, and one we’d certainly giggle about for hours afterward.
So many films waste time with excessive dialogue or excessive plotting. But Levinson’s content to let us laugh with the guys for a little bit until his point drifts into focus naturally. Boogie’s going to quit law school and find a more suitable career, Eddie’s getting married, Billy’s in love with a woman carrying his child, Shreevie has to patch up his marriage, and Fenwick’s trying to get a life.
Their lives are taking them in separate directions, and they will, in all likelihood, fail to relate to women for several years to come. As the final scene draws to a close, and all problems are temporarily put on hold, we watch the disintegration of youth, the end of the lost weekend where these twenty-somethings try to move forward instead of sitting comfortably on a vinyl booth at a dive. The characters are recognizable not just to me, but to everyone. Perhaps that’s why, when I force some of my friends to watch this on VHS, they always smile in recognition. Friends got married, people moved away, went to law school or medical school maybe, and Chris’s Family Restaurant, the neon hut that used to be a sanctuary for my buddies and I to chat the night away, is slowly, but perhaps gladly, becoming a fond memory.