Within the hugely popular genre of youth-orientated movies which focus on high school, college and early adulthood, there lurks a fascinating sub-genre which tends to turn out superior films. I call this the Aimless Youth subgenre. Aimless Youth originated with Federico Fellini’s classic I Vitelloni (1953), a semi-autobiographical work which focused on a group of young men in a small Italian town, wastrels who spend their time fighting against the pressure to accept responsibility when they’d rather be hanging out in pool halls, getting drunk and chasing women. Rather than attach a strong plot to this premise, Fellini instead focuses on many seemingly unconnected vignettes which knit together to build up a picture of bored, directionless twentysomethings.
Fellini’s approach sets out the formula for Aimless Youth movies. These are character driven pieces with numerous threads that refuse to reach a pat conclusion. Although we frequently see changes in the characters, the film always ends before plot threads are tied up and we can only speculate on whether any apparent maturations are permanent. This structure leads viewers to feel that they are part of whatever gang they are watching and that they’ve spent the last few hours hanging out with them. As such, Aimless Youth films tend to be immersive and satisfying experiences, trading narrative certainty for vivid atmosphere.
Acclaimed examples of Aimless Youth films include George Lucas’s wonderful American Graffiti (1973) and Richard Linklater’s equally great Dazed and Confused (1993), as well as lesser works like Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994) and Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). But perhaps the best, as well as the most indebted to Fellini’s film, is Barry Levinson’s debut feature Diner. Featuring a starry cast of then-unknowns including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and even Steve Guttenberg, Diner follows the tragicomic existence of a group of male friends in Baltimore during the Christmas period of 1959. Like Fellini’s film, Levinson’s script is semi-autobiographical and is the first of several works which became known as his ‘Baltimore films’.
In keeping with the rules of the Aimless Youth subgenre, Levinson’s characters have all reached crucial turning points in their lives when they need to grow up, yet are unwilling to do so. Instead, they spend their time hanging out together in their favourite diner, discussing trivial topics in painstaking detail and indulging in juvenile pranks and bets. Typical discussion topics include whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis make better make-out music and the correct way to ask for a roast beef sandwich, while challenges and wagers involve naming the flipside of any given hit record, an attempt to conquer the entire left side of the menu in one sitting and, infamously, Boogie’s reprehensible technique for getting his date to “go for my pecker”! Levinson uses these dialogue-heavy diner scenes as an anchor for his various plot threads. While each character has his own problems, the diner is where they all cut-loose and feel relaxed. Levinson achieves the natural flow of this cameraderie brilliantly by encouraging improvisation. Apparently he shot the diner scenes last so that the cast would all know each other and feel relaxed and it certainly worked. They convince as long-time buddies who have been through much together.
But it can’t all be giggles and milkshakes and, whenever they leave the diner, responsibility comes knocking. Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is getting married on new year’s eve while Shrevie (Daniel Stern), the only member of the group who is already married, is struggling to deal with his own relationship in an adult way. The prodigal Billy (Tim Daly) has accidentally impregnated his old friend Barbara (Kathryn Dowling). Boogie (Mikey Rourke) has serious gambling debts and can’t seem to stop womanising long enough to focus on them, while rich layabout Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is developing an alcohol problem and approaching the moment his trust fund will run out.
There are no easy answers in Diner. In fact, there are no answers at all. Most of the threads have no certain ending to them, which some viewers may find frustrating. But the point of Diner is not to reach narrative conclusions but to witness the character’s reactions to their various situations and the self-realisations they undergo (or don’t). When responsibility lands at their feet in the film’s final symbolic shot, we draw our own conclusions from the information we’ve pieced together. But Levinson also wrongfoots us by including surprising characteristics which contradict our expectations. For instance, we discover that immature asshole Fenwick, whose idea of a good joke is to convince his best friends that he’s been killed in a car crash, is actually highly intelligent, making his increasing alcoholism and contentment to do nothing all the more tragic. Womanising, gambling Boogie, meanwhile, appears to be a pretty swell, level-headed guy on the rare occasions he lets his mask drop.
Performances are good all round, with no one performer making an egotistical grab to upstage the others. Levinson’s tender, intelligent script (nominated for an Oscar) taps into the love that holds the group together without having to make it explicit in any gooey “I love you, man” moments. Since it focuses on a group of men, Diner‘s female characters very much play second fiddle but Levinson is aware of this and even includes a reference to it by never showing the audience Eddie’s fiance’s face. Yet women play a crucial part in the depiction of the men, since much of Diner focuses on their crude, fumbling attempts to relate to the females in their lives with anything even approaching the comfort and respect they afford each other. Serious relationships and marriage require that taboo leap into adulthood that is so frightening and unappealing to these characters. Hence, Eddie shrugs off his decision to marry as being based on nothing more than it being the time of life when you’re supposed to. No wonder his fiance is faceless.
Diner is a superb debut for Levinson and it started him on a run of brilliant films throughout the 80s. Like Rob Reiner and Robert Zemeckis, however, Levinson did most of his best work during that decade and has since declined considerably. Diner still stands as perhaps his best movie and one of the masterpieces of the Aimless Youth subgenre. With its complexity of tone and character, its many plotlines, its quotable dialogue and its great rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, Diner is a film to return to again and again. Just don’t accept any popcorn from strangers while watching!