“Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?” asks one of the character’s in 1982’s Diner. Centring on six friends hanging out at their local diner in Baltimore, USA and set in the last week of 1959, this quote perfectly captures the film’s look at the bewilderment, strains and complexities of life in one’s early twenties. Today however, the quote unfortunately captures most peoples’ ignorance of the film’s existence, despite it being nominated for an Oscar and becoming a modest hit. The film has faded into the past, lost to the fact it has never been released on region 2 DVD. Yet, although you wouldn’t know it, we have been deprived of something going on that we really should know about.
Let me explain. Diner first came to my attention back in 2012 when Vanity Fair ran a large feature extolling the film’s profound influence on pop culture, supposedly including Seinfeld, Pulp Fiction and most Apatow comedies, while the likes of Nick Hornby and Stephen Merchant supported such claims. In addition, the cast of the film is comprised of a collection of then-unknown youthful actors who would go on to have established careers. This includes Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy), and Howard Stern (the burglar that isn’t Joe Pesci in Home Alone). The film’s import began to grow and radiate to me, and soon I had to see for myself.
Not even halfway through the film, it soon became clear that Diner is definitely a forgotten gem. Written and directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam), the film is a brilliant example of how the small things in life, particularly the time in between major events and the overall tedium of life, offers much richer details and explorations than any contrived narrative sequence. Specifically, it is the naturalistic style of dialogue in the ambling, idle banter of the friends that achieves this. Whether it is them simply arguing over a roast beef sandwich or trying to sponge a free ride off a friend, the inconsequentiality of it all is actually a very enlightened perspective on the nature of friendship and relationships. Plus, it’s very, very funny.
Furthermore, Levinson masterfully creates rich characters to occupy the warm and nostalgic Americana imagery. In one scene, Beth (Ellen Barkin), cries after an argument with her husband, and asks Mickey Rourke whether she is still pretty. This isn’t meant as her seeking validation, but rather captures what happens when you mix the demands of marriage with the fragility of young age. Rourke meanwhile (before his face and career turned to leather) is subdued yet self-destructive, Bacon smarmy yet detached, and Guttenberg nervous yet naïve.
I’m aware this may not sound like gripping cinematic material, but by focusing on the small details of life through beautifully naturalistic dialogue, Diner becomes a charming and endearing look at the cluelessness of young life. As the film’s slogan dictated: “life was suddenly more than just french fries, gravy and girls”.