Change is difficult. In the movie, “Diner,” a group of close friends is figuring that out. When we meet them, the time and place is Baltimore, late December, 1959. They gather every evening at the local diner to eat French fries in brown gravy, smoke cigarettes and talk deep into the night. When I say, “talk deep,” I don’t mean their talk is based on deep conversation. These friends are in their early 20s, and deep talk is the last thing on their minds. In fact, it’s almost as if they’ve made a pact: “The longer we don’t talk about heavy, grown-up things, the longer we can put off that inevitable day when we become heavy grown-ups.”
The young, ensemble cast of “Diner” is a collection of, at the time, “unknowns.” Mickey Rourke had been in “Body Heat” the previous year. Kevin Bacon was vaguely familiar as one of the frat rats in “Animal House.” Daniel Stern had been the lanky goofball in “Breaking Away.” Beyond that, this was a cast of rookies, especially Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser and Ellen Barkin…a total of seven newcomers who are all fantastic and very natural in their roles. It feels like we’re eavesdropping on friends who’ve known each other since the third grade.
In addition to their collective “I don’t wanna grow up” anxiety, most of the characters are grappling with their own, unique crisis. “Boogie” (Mickey Rourke) is nurturing a budding gambling addiction that is catching up with him; he is a boy playing at a man’s game. “Eddie” (Steve Guttenberg) is in a panic over his looming wedding, scheduled to happen somewhere near the end of the movie. Whether or not he takes that long walk depends on how well his fiancée performs in her mandatory, pass/fail, pre-wedding NFL trivia quiz. “Billy” (Tim Daly) is the only one who is ready to make an adult decision, but his would-be girlfriend does not agree about how they should handle their very adult problem. “Modell” (Paul Reiser) is the exception. He appears to be problem-free, probably because he can joke his way out of anything.
“Shrevie” (Daniel Stern), as the group’s only married member, is having the toughest time of all as he struggles to answer that burning question asked by so many newlyweds: “Did I make a mistake?” There’s an almost-humorous, but ultimately painful scene that ends with Shrevie in a screaming fit because his wife, Beth, (Ellen Barkin) cannot follow the complex “procedure” he uses to organize his record collection. (Don’t worry…screenwriter and director, Barry Levinson, is not going to make us watch this young couple split up. Shrevie’s clumsy-but-touching attempt to make nice at the end of the movie lets you know everything’s going to be okay with these two.)
It’s Kevin Bacon, as “Fen,” who is the most restless of the six and who serves as a reflection of the aimless, frustrated generation that will flower in just a few short years. The timing of the movie is perfect: it’s set in the final hours of the 1950s. By the end of the movie, it will be January 1, 1960, the official beginning of “The Sixties,” and if Fen thinks he and his buddies are having growing pains, wait until he sees what happens to America in the turbulent decade that follows.
If this all sounds too introspective and heavy-handed, it isn’t. This is a fun and funny movie, loaded with real moments of believable conversation, genuine friendship and subtle storytelling. If you haven’t seen it, bump it to the top of your list. It’s a quiet classic.
Change is difficult, and in the movie, “Diner,” things are, indeed, changing. Levinson drives that point home in this great little scene where Mickey Rourke’s flip answer to a harmless question summarizes perfectly, in one word, a spreading, national condition that would soon come to be known as “The Generation Gap.” Enjoy!…