Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin
Running Time: 110 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I tend to review screeners of interesting films I haven’t seen before here, but when I’m offered Blu-Ray special editions of old favourites it’s hard to say no. Warner Bros. have recently introduced a new Premium Collection series, exclusive to UK HMV stores, and the first batch of 10 titles include three films I’d class as particular favourites of mine, alongside several other classics. The three dear to my heart, which I’ll be reviewing over the coming weeks, include Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Shining (the Extended Edition, not previously available in the UK) and Diner. Kicking off my reviews will be my thoughts on the latter.
Barry Levinson’s Diner follows a group of college-age friends in 1959 Baltimore, around Christmas-time, as they hang out, primarily in the open-all-night Fells Point Diner. Each man is at a pivotal point in their life, be it about to get married, stuck in a marital rut already, facing impending parenthood within a strained relationship, on the verge of getting in trouble with the law or the wrong crowd, or simply not knowing what to do next with their lives as they prepare to dive headlong into adulthood.
Although I class Diner as a particular favourite of mine, it’s actually been a while since I’ve seen it. So long in fact my last viewing was on VHS. Watching it again after a little over a decade, the film holds up as brilliantly as I remember. In fact, it’s even more effective now that I can fully appreciate what the characters are going through. I’m actually surprised I liked it as much as I did back when I was a teenager as I hadn’t yet moved into ‘true’ adulthood and experienced the fear and uncertainty of having to take full responsibility for myself and eventually responsibility for others. Now I’m in my mid-thirties and married with two kids, I truly feel like I’ve ‘been there, done that’ and the film is much more poignant and tinged with melancholy than I remember.
That’s not to say the film is a glum weepie though, far from it. One of the main reasons I used to love the film is because it’s so funny. The dialogue, which is semi-improvised by the cast, is sharp and endlessly quotable (“I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll kill your whole family” is a particular favourite). There are several hugely memorable and hilarious scenes in the film too. The penis in the popcorn gag is a standout, particularly Boogie’s (Mickey Rourke) far fetched explanation he gives to his date as to how it happened, which he somehow pulls off through his smooth-talking ways. I also love the record filing argument between Shrevie (Daniel Stern) and his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin), which hits close to home for me. What’s great about that scene is it’s simultaneously funny and quietly heartbreaking at the same time (as it demonstrates the cracks in their relationship), something the film pulls off frequently.
With most of the film being made up of conversations rather than any ‘action’ so to speak, it thrives on its wonderfully written and performed characters. The only one of the core group of friends that doesn’t feel fully fleshed out is Modell (Paul Reiser), but his beating-around-the-bush shtick and banter is hilarious and he caps the film off with a killer best man routine, so he still feels vital to the film’s success. The whole central male cast, assisted by Barkin who excels as the only notable female presence, are fantastic. It was the first decent role for most of them. Rourke had shown up in some great films before then, but this gave him the chance to really shine and Diner helped propel most of the central seven into stardom. Only Tim Daly feels less of a familiar face, although he’s enjoyed a decent TV career by the looks of the IMDB.
The film is in no hurry to get anywhere and feels like a prototype for the ‘hanging out’ movies that became more popular in the 90s (although Diner certainly didn’t invent the subgenre, which had been around for decades prior). The laid back, talk-heavy atmosphere makes it a surprising film to be released by a major studio in the early 80’s when blockbuster extravaganzas were all the vogue. A documentary included in the package brings this up, claiming that Warner Bros. looked set to shelve the film, thinking no one would want to see it, but a positive Pauline Kael review helped change their minds.
Despite the leisurely pace, the film remains utterly intoxicating. Like all good hanging out movies, you simply enjoy sitting in with the characters as they put the world to rights or just shoot the shit. Elevating the film to another level though are the universal themes of growing up and moving on, not just within the characters lives, but within the country or even the world in which they inhabit, as a new decade looms overhead. It adds a sense of melancholy and nostalgia, without feeling like a rose-tinted celebration of an era. Watching the film again after about 13 years, not only does it remain a favourite, it’s gone up in my estimations and if you haven’t had a chance to see it yet, there’s no better way to experience Diner than in this handsome Premium Collection package.
Diner has been re-released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment in a Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital HD/UV package as part of their new Premium Collection, sold exclusively at HMV. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both fantastic.
The special features include:
– Introduction featuring writer/director Barry Levinson and the film’s stars
– Behind-the-scenes documentary – Diner: on the Flip Side
You also get 4 collectable art-cards and the whole thing comes in an attractive slip-case.
The features have been ported over from an older US release, but the documentary, which runs at around 30 minutes, is fun and loaded with trivia about the film. Levinson was keen to keep the rapport going between his cast, so had them meet and hang out in Baltimore prior to shooting and brought in a ‘camaraderie camper’ when relationships were strained during the late shoots. Most of the film’s main players are present in the doc and seem to have fond memories of the shoot and film itself, so it’s well worth a watch. The introduction is more throwaway, but it’s kind of fun I guess. It’s a shame there isn’t a commentary, but the package is still nicely put together and I’m just happy to see the film get a decent release after drifting off into obscurity over the years.