A great hangout movie is hard to do well. You have to have a cast of memorable characters brought vividly to life by actors with quotable dialogue. All of these elements are crucial because they often distract from the fact that most hangout movies are about nothing and by that I mean they are largely plotless. The godfather of the genre is George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), which followed a bunch of teenagers driving around in cars and goofing off. It featured a cast of then unknown actors, some of whom would go on to be big-time movie stars (Harrison Ford). It also had a fantastic soundtrack of vintage 1950s rock ‘n’ roll music. This film established a template that many others would follow – most notably Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) and Superbad (2007).
Another great and hugely influential hangout movie is Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), which was the first of his four “Baltimore Films.” This semi-autobiographical film depicts the reunion of six twentysomethings during the last week of 1959 for the upcoming wedding of one of their own with much of the action taking place at a local diner. It not only marked the directorial debut of Levinson (who also wrote the screenplay) but also featured an incredible cast of then up-and-coming actors: Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, and feature film debuts of Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. The success of Diner would help launch their careers as well as that of Levinson’s.
Instead of adhering to a traditional narrative, Diner is comprised of a series of vignettes. We meet Modell (Reiser) at a local dance as he tells Robert “Boogie” Sheftell (Rourke) that Timothy “Fen” Fenwick (Bacon) is breaking windows in the basement of the building. We learn that Fen does crazy things as a goof and that Boogie is a smooth talker with the ladies, convincing Fen’s date to go back with him even though he ditched her. As they leave the dance for a local diner, Levinson introduces the funny, observational humor that comes out of Modell’s mouth when he tells Boogie, “You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance. It’s not really a word. Gesture is a good word. At least you know where you stand with gesture.”
We are introduced to the pivotal location of the diner as Eddie Simmons (Guttenberg) argues that Frank Sinatra is better than Johnny Mathis because the former is better in every respect and this leads to a hilarious bit where Modell asks Eddie for the last half of his roast beef sandwich much to the latter’s chagrin. It is so funny to see Modell intentionally wind up Eddie only to feign innocence when his friend tries to call him on it. There’s a loose, spontaneous feel to this scene and Levinson even keeps in Kevin Bacon’s reaction to Eddie and Modell’s bickering. His laughter looks genuine – an unguarded moment of the actor breaking character.
The way the actors interact with each other suggests that these characters have been friends for most of their lives in the way they speak to each other. There is a familiarity and a short-hand that is believable. One imagines that they’ve had this same argument a hundred times before. The diner scene also establishes Boogie’s mounting gambling debt and his schemes to get inside information for his next bet while settling the Mathis/Sinatra debate by stating that Elvis Presley is better than both of them.
These guys still have a lot of growing up to do, like Boogie’s ever-increasing gambling debts or Eddie still living at home, driving his mother crazy, or Fen’s childish pranks, even going so far as to fake a bloody car accident. Only Laurence “Shrevie” Schreiber (Stern) is married but he’s hardly the epitome of maturity, obsessively collecting 45s and cruelly chastising his wife Beth (Barkin) for failing to understand his organizational system. In addition, Shrevie can’t tell Eddie if he’s happily married or not. He tries to articulate it in terms of having sex with his wife. Before they were married they talked a lot about it and spent time planning when to have it and then once they were married they talked about it less because it wasn’t a big of an issue. It basically boils down to not having much in common with her as he tells Eddie, “You know, I can come down here, we can bullshit the whole night away but I cannot hold a five minute conversation with Beth.” Male friendship is the most important thing in these guys’ lives and this is symbolized by the diner because it is the place where they get together regularly. Only William “Billy” Howard (Daly) seems to have any kind of maturity and this is a result of going to college and removing himself from his circle of immature friends.
The cast is uniformly excellent with Paul Reiser getting the bulk of the film’s funny, quotable dialogue. Tim Daly has the lion’s share of the film’s dramatic scenes as Billy reunites with an ex-girlfriend (Kathryn Dowling) and she tells him about being pregnant with his child. Over the course of the film Billy wrestles with the dilemma of what to do about it. The good-looking Mickey Rourke is well-cast as a persuasive Lothario. He’s always scheming, whether it’s placing sports bets or making moves on beautiful women. Fen is the black sheep of his family, dropping out of school, refusing to work and living off his trust fund. Kevin Bacon hints at a checkered family past and this is what fuels Fen’s unpredictable behavior. So long as he lives off a trust fund he will never grow up. The actor does a good job of portraying the prankster side of Fen and also the more troubling aspects as well.
Levinson doesn’t shy away from how badly women were treated back then, from Boogie’s womanizing tendencies to Eddie forcing his fiancée to take a quiz about football and his favorite team, the Baltimore Colts, which she must pass before he will marry her. The most troubling example of this behavior is how badly Shrevie treats Beth. He’s an obsessive record collector and freaks out at her inability to adhere to his organizational system. She is a casual music listener while it is very important to him. She can’t understand this and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t appreciate it more. He has a very personal connection to music that she doesn’t but this argument is symptomatic of a larger problem – they don’t have much in common.
Levinson immerses us in the sights and sounds of the diner with insert shots of clean plates being stacked and ketchup bottles being refilled. There is also the fantastic attention to period detail, from the vintage cars to the occasional slang that the characters say to what they wear to the period music (a killer soundtrack featuring the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins among others). He also fills in the margins of the film with amusing bits like the guy who eats the entire left side of the diner’s menu causing Modell to quip, “It’s not human. He’s not a person. He’s like a building with feet.” There’s the guy who obsessively quotes dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success (1957). It is these moments that help flesh out this world and make it more real, more tangible, transporting us to ‘50s era Baltimore.
Barry Levinson worked on the Mel Brooks comedy High Anxiety (1977) and used to tell the filmmaker Diner-esque stories about growing up in Baltimore. Brooks told Levinson, “You should write that as a screenplay,” but he couldn’t figure out how to do it. Levinson went on to write several scripts with ex-wife Valerie Curtin and during a period where she was acting in a film he started writing Diner. It took him three weeks and during that time he figured out the framework – it takes place over a five-day period – and that it was “all about male-female relationships, lack of relationship, lack of communication.” He frequented the Hilltop Diner in Northwest Baltimore and some of the conversations in the film, like the Mathis or Sinatra debate, came out of actual conversations he had. In addition, the six guys in the film were composites of friends and family and things they did and said.
Producer Mark Johnson met Levinson on High Anxiety and originally they were going to work together on Toys (1992), which they made years later, but it didn’t happen. Johnson went on to work for producer Jerry Weintraub at MGM while Levinson wrote Diner. When he read the script he loved it and wanted to make it. Johnson gave Levinson’s script to Weintraub who set it up almost immediately at MGM. At the time, the studio had several other larger budget movies and because the one for Diner was so low ($5 million), he was left alone, able to shoot on location in Baltimore, and cast relatively unknown actors in the lead roles.
When it came to casting the film Levinson saw around 600 guys. Kevin Bacon had just quite television soap opera Guiding Light when he got the call to audition for Diner. He originally read for Billy and Boogie. He met with Levinson who asked him to read for Fenwick, a character the actor had difficulty relating to. When he came back to audition, he was quite sick with a 103 degree fever. “I had a kinda slowed down and out-of-it quality, just based on the illness, that sorta worked for the character.” He ended up using that approach in the film.
Tim Daly auditioned in New York and read for Levinson who liked him. The actor came back repeatedly and read as well as doing a couple of screen tests. The studio wanted another actor but that person didn’t want to do the film and Levinson liked Daly and cast him as Billy. Paul Reiser came in with a friend and had no intention of auditioning. The casting director saw him and thought he’d be good in the film and told Levinson who met him the next day and cast the Reiser. Levinson purposely under-wrote Modell because he knew that if he “put in more stream-of-consciousness stuff, I’d have gotten some resistance [from the studio].”
Levinson only saw one person for the role of Beth and that was Ellen Barkin. The studio didn’t want her because they felt that she wasn’t pretty enough. The filmmaker lied his way into casting Barkin anyway. According to the actress, her on-screen relationship with Daniel Stern mirrored their off-screen one: “We’ve since made amends to each other, but it was a little difficult.”
Levinson remembers that they shot the film mostly at night and this resulted in keeping an unusual schedule: “Coming back, daylight is coming up and you’re coming back to the hotel to go to sleep at the Holiday Inn. Everybody else is getting up to go to work.” One of the biggest challenges was finding the diner. He wanted to use the Double-T Diner but they wanted too much money. Fortunately, Johnson found one in a diner graveyard in New Jersey. They transported it on a flatbed truck and placed it where they wanted it, which was Fells Point.
Levinson shot all the diner scenes last so that the cast would have time to bond and “draw on the rapport they’d developed over seven weeks. By that time they had their edges, little things that bothered them about each other, and those unspoken tensions enriched the movie,” the filmmaker said at the time. This method paid off. Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rourke became good friends during filming and at one point they told Levinson they wanted to do a scene together because they didn’t have one. The filmmaker went back to his trailer and a few minutes later came out with a scene where Eddie talks about being a virgin. They went ahead and filmed it that day.
Reiser was Levinson’s secret weapon and he allowed the comedian to improvise dialogue. For example, during the “nuance” scene, Reiser remembers Levinson telling him, “’You’re bothered by the word ‘nuance.’’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, it’s a strange word, just play with it.’” The “roast beef sandwich” scene was also completely ad-libbed and came out of the actors talking in-between takes, eating whatever they wanted.
During post-production, MGM executive David Chasman wanted Levinson to cut the roast beef sandwich scene from the film but the director refused because he “wanted the piece to be without any flourish, without anything other than basically saying, ‘This is all it was.’” The studio wanted a sex comedy like Porky’s (1981) and didn’t like what Levinson had done. As Johnson recalls, “They didn’t know what to make of it.” When it came to test screenings, audiences in Levinson’s hometown of Baltimore hated the film and even the local newspaper The Baltimore Sun gave it a negative review. It didn’t help that the studio advertised the film by putting an emphasis on the soundtrack of classic rock ‘n’ roll music (perhaps trying to ape what American Graffiti had done) but this did not appeal to test audiences. Levinson was not happy with this approach: “They were expecting Grease and they didn’t get it.”
MGM was hesitant to release Diner and didn’t set a date. One of Johnson’s mother’s best friends was influential film critic Pauline Kael. He snuck a print out and showed it to her. She loved it and called the studio telling them, “You guys are about to have a lot of egg on your face because I’m about to give this movie a rave review and it’s not going to be available.” The studio finally released it in one theater in Manhattan.
Diner started getting strong reviews and in each city the film played it broke house records but, according to Levinson, “it never went wide because they never had any belief that it could play to a broader audience.” Pauline Kael wrote, “It isn’t remarkable visually but it features some of the best young actors in the country.” Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Diner is often a very funny movie, although I laughed most freely not at the sexual pranks but at the movie's accurate ear, as it reproduced dialogue with great comic accuracy.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “These characters are individually well drawn, and they're played beautifully. Mr. Levinson has found a first-rate cast, most of them unknown but few to be unknown for long.” In his review for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen wrote, “But while seeming to traverse familiar ground, Levinson and his superb young cast are sprinkling it with sparkling insights.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott wrote, “Rhythmically, Diner is uneven. The strong opening gives way to a somewhat lassitudinous half hour but, when the pace does pick up, it never wobbles – the film works slowly, but surely.” However, in his review for the Washington Post, Gary Arnold felt it was “an oddly disappointing nice try.”
Diner failed to connect with audiences and quietly began disappearing from theaters. MGM was prepared to write it off but then strong reviews from influential New York critics gave it a second lease on life. The studio realized that they could possibly make money off the film and re-released it in seven theaters where it managed to gross approximately $1 million. The New York Times ran a favorable review and followed it up with an in-depth article on Levinson and the film, which generated word-of-mouth business.
Levinson does a nice job of juggling each character’s storyline, whether it’s Boogie’s gambling problems, Eddie getting ready for his wedding, or Fen’s increasing erratic behavior, and having them all dovetail nicely by the film’s conclusion. They’re not all entirely resolved but that’s the point: life’s problems are not easily solved within the confines of a film and one imagines these characters dealing with the fallout of the events depicted in Diner long after it ends.
The six guys in Diner come across as fully-fleshed out characters (with perhaps the exception of Modell) with rich backstories that are only hinted at and this adds to their authenticity and how the actors portray them that invites repeated viewings. This is why Levinson’s film still holds up after all these years. Diner feels like a very personal film and this is due in large part to all the personal touches and little details that populate it.
Diner is about a group of young men still acting like boys. They are on the cusp of being adults and either make the transition willingly or are forced to through marriage. The film depicts this transitional period in their lives when they have one foot in adolescence and one in adulthood. It is a film about male friendship and examines the dynamic between these six guys and why it is more important than their relationships with girlfriends and wives. Diner excels at presenting memorable characters that are funny and real, dealing with real problems. The film is full of quotable dialogue but also deals with serious issues that aren’t glossed over and aren’t all resolved by the end credits.
Farber, Stephen. “He Drew From His Boyhood to Make Diner.” The New York Times. April 18, 1982.
Harris, Will. “Ellen Barkin on Great Directors and Her Favorite Roles, from Diner to Buckaroo Banzai.” The A.V. Club. August 15, 2014.
Harris, Will. “Tim Daly on Madam Secretary, Voicing Superman, and Killing Stephen Weber.” The A.V. Club. September 19, 2014.
Price, S.L. “Much Ado About Nothing.” Vanity Fair. March 2012.
Serpick, Evan. “Diner: An Oral History.” Baltimore Magazine. April 2012.
Williams, Christian. “The Diner Opens.” Washington Post. May 14, 1982.