Christmas night, 1959, and in Baltimore this group of friends have been at a dance where rock ‘n’ roll records are played, but one of them, Fen (Kevin Bacon) has wandered off so Boogie (Mickey Rourke) goes to find him. When he does, Fen is smashing windows in the basement of the building, which Boogie must dissuade him from doing, but the guy is rather inebriated which seems to be his usual state these days. Boogie manages to get him back up the stairs and the group decide to head off away from the celebrations so the men can visit their preferred diner where they love to hang out and shoot the breeze. But along the way, Fen drives on ahead and is seen shortly after at the side of the road, covered in blood…
Or actually tomato ketchup, for he has turned his car on one side to pretend he has been in a crash, a gag he has been planning as a Christmas treat for months, though nobody else finds it especially funny. If you then thought this movie was going to be about the deterioration of Fen and how his pals try to help him through his despondency and alcohol addiction, they you may have been surprised, as although there were scenes later on where he had to be rescued, such as the celebrated sequence where he smashes up the nativity display while off his face, Fen was by no means the focus. So who was? In truth, director Barry Levinson wished to treat these guys as one entity.
They were one mass of bickering, badly behaved and immature adults who soon enough would have to settle down and set about life with some sense of responsibility, and we were meant to relate to them on that level while still laughing at their flaws and quirks, so much so that the impression was Diner had been a project very personal to Levinson even if many found it hard to like as much as its fans did, as it did feel very self-centred. Before this, his debut at the helm of a film, he had been a comedy writer most memorably working with Mel Brooks, and it was he who encouraged Levinson to plough his own furrow as a director, so this loosely assembled nostalgia piece was the result, and it instantly became a cult movie in the way the nineteen-fifties bred in the eighties.
This was no Back to the Future, granted, but such elements as having a character whose dialogue consists of his favourite quotes from another cult movie, Sweet Smell of Success, offered a timbre all its own, and the laidback, often improvisational dialogue lent a distinctive sound to what could have been American Graffiti for the eighties. That said, how interested you stayed in what these characters had to say was reliant on how much you were engaged with what was essentially trivia, leaving a rather finicky sense of personality to the work where arguments about whether Johnny Mathis was better than Frank Sinatra were as important as the upcoming nuptials for Steve Guttenberg’s Eddie – and even he managed to slot the importance of trivia in there by quizzing his bride to be on his favourite sporting team to prove her worth.
At the time, Diner seemed to be one of those movies that heralded a bunch of new talents on the scene, and while the main stars appeared to be set for great things, it didn’t really transpire that many of them lived up to that potential, which in a way could be a fitting commentary on both the generation they belonged to and the generation they played, and indeed the ones in their future: not everyone is a success, you could argue modest achievements are what most of us can lay claim to. Perhaps the key character wasn’t one of the men at all, but Beth (Ellen Barkin), the wife of the only married member of the circle, Shrevie (Daniel Stern), who is more sympathetic than any of them and sees them for the small-minded, petty lot they really are. Only Boogie (Rourke demonstrating his own squandered potential with his smooth attractiveness here) seems worthy of her, and he’s the one who tries the infamous popcorn trick. Why Christmas was emphasised when Jewishness seemed just as important, if not more so, was another issue, but Diner preferred to stay light on the seriousness looming in the background anyway. Music by Bruce Brody and Ivan Kral.