On April 2, 1982, MGM unveiled writer-director Barry Levinson’s feature debut Diner at the New York Film Festival. The movie went on to nab an Oscar nomination for screenplay at the 55th Academy Awards. The Srdtf News’s original review is below:
Lurking behind a rather simplistic and misleading title, MGM’s Diner is a warmly written, engagingly acted and thoroughly captivating “personal” picture which could, if muscle and patience are applied, emerge as a sleeper for the Culver City company. It’ll be a hard sell, but worth it.
The film is a first directorial effort for screenwriter Barry (And Justice for All, Inside Moves) Levinson, based on his own experiences growing up in Baltimore, circa 1959, a time when dudes still wore jackets and ties as a matter of daily habit, watched Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee movies, collected 45 rpm records and, otherwise, faced the same problems of the newly dawning adult world as every soul has before, and since.
It gives Diner a slice of universality, and nostalgia, that many moviegoers will find irresistible, if they can be pulled to the box office. Picture has no names of impact (yet), so its other virtues will have to be the lure, as it was with Breaking Away and Four Friends, two recent films Diner resembles in flavor and attitude, if not in actual rundown.
In fact, Levinson and producer Jerry Weintraub could easily have tagged this “Five Friends” since it covers a welded series of incidents in the post-high school lives of five pals as they begin groping for footholds in the world. The peg, picked by Levinson on which to hang his story, is the upcoming marriage of one of the quintet (Steve Guttenberg) amid some self-doubts, which leads to interspliced inspections of the lives of the other four.
One (Daniel Stern) is already married, and finds it difficult to talk to his young wife (Ellen Barkin), since, before marital vows, their relationship was primarily based on discussing or trying for sex, something now taken for granted. Another (Mickey Rourke) is a ladies’ man who works as a hairdresser by day, goes to law school by night and has a penchant for gambling that ultimately gets him into some serious scrapes. A third in the group (Timothy Daly) is attending college but newly concerned in doing right by a girl friend who’s pregnant (Kathryn Dowling) while the fourth (Kevin Bacon) is a mental whiz but immature, at odds with his family and on a self-destruction binge.
Levinson, both as a writer and director, slowly unveils each gent, using the Fells Point Diner as their hub and playing much of the action at night, which gives much of the film a dark attractive and almost noir mood. Although several scenes appear to be improvised — especially a great encounter between Guttenberg and Paul Reiser over some food at the diner — there’s clearly a strong script here, sans heavy drama but otherwise richly endowed. If it has a principal flaw, it is only that it runs long at almost two hours.
The acting, and the rapport between the performers, is excellent down the line, beginning with Guttenberg, who is attractively subdued from his Betty Hutton imitation in Can’t Stop the Music. Only during a dance (?) bit in a strip joint does the Hutton side reemerge, otherwise he is wonderfully under control, although he is a bit much to swallow as a virgin (with that chutzpah?). Stern, Rourke, Bacon, Daly and Reiser are each right on, likable and interesting, with good screen personalities that bode well for future movie contributions, as well.
Since Diner is clearly told from a male p.o.v. the women are entirely supplemental — Guttenberg’s fiancee is never shown, even during the climactic wedding sequence, a nice touch — and deliberate — but Ellen Barkin has a powerful scene as Stern’s frustrated wife, and Kathryn Dowling is good as a TV career girl involved with Daly. Jessica James, late of Broadway’s long-running Gemini and short-lived Little Me, also has some funny moments as Guttenberg’s nonstereotypical mother.
The cinematography of Peter Sova, art direction of Leon Harris and costume designs of Gloria Gresham, along with visual consultant Gene Rudolf, neatly create the late 1950s in Baltimore during a soft winter season, adding a superstrong plus to the overall impact. The music, supervised by Harry V. Lojewski, also makes a major contribution in creating the ’50s feeling, with familiar tunes ringing on the soundtrack, chirped by such as Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Dion and the Belmonts, Jane Morgan, Dick Haymes and Elvis Presley.
All in all, Diner is a worthwhile dish, certainly the best thing Leo the Lion has had to roar about in some time. — Robert Osborne, originally published on March 3, 1982.