It’s easy to tell that MGMUA’s “Diner ” was chiefly conceived and executed by a writer. In his directorial debut, Barry LeVinson takes great pains to establish characters so real and universal that it’s doubtful anyone will escape without seeing someone they once knew. But for all his painstaking accuracy, Le Vinson has also concocted a dark and depressing period story devoid of a single person without a major problem or character flaw. That makes for an Interesting picture difficult for most audiences to watch. And for MGM-UA, difficult to sell.
The year is 1959 and the diner the title suggests is in Baltimore, although the action could take place in any American city. Using the diner as the proverbial street corner hangout, Levinson centers on a close knit group of guys in their early 20s and how their early adult lives are taking shape.
These are the kind of men who seem to get their greatest pleasure from concluding each evening exchanging stories of the night’s exploits over a sandwich at the diner table. One might be married, another might live with his parents while still another might be on his own, but somehow they manage to keep their “group” going — despite every thing.
In this case there’s lots to worry about. Among the characters is a young gambler just footsteps ahead of his loanshark; a thinking grad student whose pregnant career-wise girlfriend won’t get married; a compulsive husband unhappy with his new wife; a handsome rich kid who gets drunk to escape his cold family; and a closet “virgin” who won’t marry his girlfriend until she can pass a football quiz.
The film takes on a hard edge as it portrays these men, none of whom seem close to being happy. There is an underlying mutual support that keeps them going but by the film’s conclusion It seems as if that too might be waning.
Within the general downbeat tone, LeVinson manages to pepper their conversations with all the petty bickering and sexual innuendo one might expect. His ear for dialog is uncanny and it is that adeptness that keeps the film intriguing. Also helping are Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stem, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and Timothy Daly — terrific as the friends. Each etches out his individual predicament with wonderful subtlety, as do Ellen Barkin and Kathryn Dowling as the two females involved with different group members.
As a director, Le Vinson has an undeniable talent with actors that should serve him well in future projects. Lenser Peter Sova has come through with some appropriately gritty photography even if overall the film is a bit too dark.
But with all Its good points, there is still not a person or situation to be found in “Diner” that gives much real hope to the future. While that might be an accurate portrait in some circles, it’s not the kind of thing audiences generally line up to see. — Pauline Kael
1982: Nomination: Best Original Screenplay