You know what word I'm not comfortable with? Nuance. It's not a real word. Like "gesture." Gesture's a real word. With gesture you know where you stand. But nuance? I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.
Set in Baltimore in 1959, Diner is the story of five friends and the diner where they hang out. It is the place where they come in as men but are able to act and talk as boys.
Steve Guttenburg (Police Academy films) is Eddie. Eddie is on the verge of getting married but only if his fiancée can pass his football knowledge quiz. It is a test the group agrees none of them could pass. Boogie, the group's resident stud, is played by Mickey Rourke (Angel Heart, 9 1/2 Weeks). Boogie works as a hairdresser during the day and attends law school in the evenings. Why law school? Well, according to him, because the girls love it. On top of that, Boogie has gotten himself deep into debt to the local bookie. He owes more money than he can afford to pay, so he comes up with some very creative ways to make up the shortfall. Ways that involve, among other things, a blonde wig, a box of buttered popcorn and his penis. Paul Reiser (Aliens, television's "Mad about You") is the one in the group whose sole purpose is to crack wise, Modell. Tim Daly (televisions "Wings" and the voice of Superman on the cartoon of the same name), is the returning best pal, Billy. Billy is getting his masters degree in NYC and comes home to find out that the woman he has slept with once is pregnant. He wants to get married, she does not.
The group's resident alcoholic is Fenwick. Kevin Bacon (Stir of Echoes, Apollo 13, Footloose) plays Fenwick with a serious sense of attitude. Brilliant but unmotivated, Fenwick is more than willing to coast through life, helped in large part by his late grandfather's trust fund. Rounding out the group of five is Shrevie. Shrevie is played by Daniel Stern (Home Alone, Blue Thunder, City Slickers). Shrevie is the one member of the group who is married. Lost and confused, he complains that he always has something to talk about with his friends but nothing to say to his wife Beth. Ellen Barkin (Sea of Love, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eight Dimension), plays Beth. Beth is just as confused about marriage as her husband is. Lonely and feeling trapped in a relationship she does not understand, Beth turns to ex-beau Boogie for comfort and support. Support which almost turns into something the two of them will regret.
To make a long story short, Boogie gets the money from a pal of his fathers, Bagel (Michael Tucker). Eddie's fiancée passes the test. By two points! Shrevie and Beth work out their differences or at least start to. Modell gets his big chance to crack wise at Eddie's wedding. That and an order of fries with gravy. Just another couple of weeks for the boys at the diner.
When looking at Diner, the first thing a person has to realize is, the plot is of secondary importance. What matters most is the relationships between the characters. The plot merely serves as a catapult for the characters to interact and banter with each other. And what banter. Diner boasts some of the best dialogue ever written for the screen. Moments that just snap and ring with truth. Words that are both poignant and funny at the same time. The film that I always associate in my mind with Diner is The Big Chill. Different circumstances, different characters. But both films are about friendship, about the changes that we all have to go through and the effects those changes have on the ones we care about. Like The Big Chill, Diner is populated by people most of us know or grew up with. People that we miss or people that we still talk to. People whose memory makes us smile. Watching the two films back to back only solidifies that feeling for me.
Diner was the directorial debut of screenwriter Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Sphere, The Natural). Like a great many of his films that would follow, Diner is set in his home town of Baltimore. It is a city and people that he knows well. He puts this knowledge to good use. He is in every one of his characters and he knows the film he is making. A more polished director may well have done things differently but Levinson's instincts, right out of the gate, are sharp and on the money. The movie moves at a very quick pace yet never seems rushed. Everything fits in place and all of his characters get their moment to shine. Casting and performances are key in a movie like this. Based on this film alone, a good argument could be made of Levinson's eye for talent as well as his ability with the typewriter. Rarely has a film boasted so much young talent that would so quickly go out and make their mark on the film industry.
Rourke really did have that smoldering, Brando-like thing down while Bacon comes off very well with his mix of cynicism and naïveté. Reiser is very funny, without being annoying like he so often is these days. Daly is solid and kind of bland in a very wasp kind of way. Which leaves Stern in the familiar role of the nebbish buddy who just wants to fit in. It is a role he has played many times since, but here it is fresh and convincing.
Barkin has all the traits we have come to expect in her since this film was released. The crooked grin, the slow sexy stare, the vulnerability hidden under the harsh exterior. She is a very talented performer, its too bad she gets more press these days for who she is married to and not more film work.
Diner gets some very nice treatment from Warner Bros. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is given a brand new anamorphic transfer. While the picture is very good its not perfect. There must have been some degree of digital restoration done because I could make out no scratches or nicks in the print used. Pretty amazing considering this is a low budget movie that is almost 20 years old. Problems were mainly in the detail area. Quite often the picture seemed soft, never anything distracting, but certainly noticeable in parts. Colors and fleshtones however were right on the money. Saturation was nicely done for the most part, although there were a few images with an unnatural amount of harshness. Still considering the age of the source material, its obvious a lot of effort went into the transfer.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital Mono and the best thing that can be said about it, is that this is probably exactly the way Diner sounded when it was first released. While the sound is not full by any means, it is not thin either. It actually sounds kind of natural. Distortion and hiss are held to a minimum and while some of the dialogue sounds a little muddled, it is probably more to do with the actors themselves than a fault in the soundtrack.
On the extras front, the main feature offered is a retrospective documentary called Diner: On the Flip Side. For what it is, its not too bad. All of the main players, minus Rourke, are heard from. Some, like Guttenburg are almost too thrilled to be talking. To anyone. Reiser is, well, Reiser. Bacon and Stern come off as comfortable and Barkin is still sexy in that odd kind of way. Levinson comes off as shy and almost professorial in looking back at his early work. Some nice stories are told and some laughs are to be had, although due to their adult nature, the really good dirt is only hinted at. Maybe Warner can release Diner: On the Flip Side 2—the good stuff.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I do wish more had been done to make this more of a special edition. I would imagine a Levinson commentary track would be very informative and interesting. Throw in small amounts of Paul Reiser into the mix and it could be pretty funny as well. Warner Bros. is giving their upcoming re-release of Twister a commentary track with Jan DeBont and that movie sucked. Too bad good movies like Diner can't get the same treatment.
The best and the most damning thing I can say about the documentary is that I wish there were more to it. I would have loved to see outtakes or deleted scenes, something to give the stories heard a frame of reference. As it stands now, there are worse ways to kill a half hour.
On the technical side, I've already listed the problems as I saw them. I don't think, however, that any of these problems will be a big deal to the average film watcher. Just don't go in expecting Diner to look like a movie made yesterday because it doesn't. In its defense, Diner has not looked or sounded better in almost 20 years.
I have always had a soft spot for Diner. It is one of those films that we see ourselves in. Films that make us remember and smile. Seeing it again for the first time in quite a few years has not dulled my affection for the movie. If anything that affection is stronger. In this age of mega-budget blockbuster movie "events," films with subtle charms like Diner are a breath of fresh air. The film is as charming now as it was 20 years ago.
Priced at online retailers like Reel.com for under 20 bucks, Diner is a movie that belongs in most collections. It certainly has a prized place in mine.
Both Diner and Warner Brothers are acquitted on all charges and are released from this court. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind-the scenes Documentary - Diner: On the Flip Side
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