A wonderfully acted, thought-provoking movie, Barry Levinson’s 1982 Diner delves into the minds of young people and focus on the apparent dichotomy between the natural inclination towards rebellion and the necessity of conforming to a life of acceptance and responsibility.
The young characters in Levinson’s Diner are at the threshold of modern times. As the end of the 50s signals the twilight of innocence, the friends at the centre of this coming-of-age tale begin contemplating changes which will affect their lives in unparalleled ways. More remarkable still is the fact that not only those people and their world were at the cusp of a profoundly shift in contemporary mores, but the actors involved in the film were also at the dawn of their stardom.
During the Christmas night of 1959 in Baltimore, in a dancing hall, Modell (Paul Reiser) asks his buddy Boogie (Mickey Rourke) to deal with their common friend Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), who is drunk and is smashing windows on the basement. At the Fells Point Diner, Modell, Fenwick and pals Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) and Shrevie (Daniel Stern) are eating and chatting about music and girls. Boogie eventually joins them. Later, in the morning of the next day, their friend Billy (Tim Daly) arrives in town by train, and is informed by the others of the absurd football quiz Eddie is imposing on his fiancée as a condition for their impending wedding. Married to Beth (Ellen Barkin), Shrevie is the only one of the friends who is not single.
Modell, who at first seems to be the weirdest of them all, is in fact the one with the least of problems. Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), who is pregnant with Billy’s baby, and for whom he feels constrained to marry, does not want to follow suit. Billy – apparently the sensible one of the friends – starts acting out and getting into fights. On the other hand, Eddie seems to be doing all he can to sabotage his own future marriage, almost wishing his fiancée fails his stupid quiz. Likewise, Shrevie’s relationship with his wife Beth is in tatters and he seems not to care. Then there’s Boogie, who is trapped in a vicious circle of meaningless womanizing and gambling, and keeps accumulating an unmanageable amount of debt. Finally, there’s Fenwick, a cynical alcoholic on a sure path of self-destruction.
..‘You Know What Your Problem Is… You Don’t Chew Your Food.’
Right from the beginning we notice insecurity and a competitive streak on these guys. For $ 5 Fenwick abandons his date and decides to break basement windows. ‘It’s a smile,’ he says. He can’t be bothered to get the girl and seems cool about it but such calculated move just proves his need for reassurance. Later in the evening, he plays a prank of a car accident and ketchup in his face and finds all very clever. These are the myths young men live by… To outdo and outsmart each other. These are beliefs that usually stifle their development and delay their facing up to reality. It is true that these guys, these male characters, treat women like objects, never recognising their intrinsic value, and only viewing them as means to their own ends, but to read the film from a feminist-only perspective is narrow-minded, missing the point.
Their behaviour is the result of deep-seated trepidation, which affect their female counterparts too. This is dread of the known unknown. They are like children, only a bit grown up. And at heart, children fear freedom and independence. What they really want is power insulated from bad consequences. And these young people are just acting out because the diner – in fact, the several restaurants or clubs they visit – serves as their safe cocoon where their selected freedom can be exercised. Thus the parallel between their rite of passage experience and the changes that are about to confront America and the world as a whole are totally apt. It is true, there is braggadocio and misogyny, but there is also a sensitive and tender side to all of them.
So what if they’re trying to hold on to adolescence, trying to keep life simple and innocent, as free as possible from real responsibility? Who does not do that? Perhaps we could be a bit more tolerant with our own immaturity and less judgemental with our own lack of ambition. Plenty of people conform because they know that otherwise they would be ridiculed, and honestly, for most people that’s worst than having to work your ass off in order to just get by. When Boogie takes Beth as a replacement for a girl he bet he would have sex with and Shrevie (Beth’s husband) and Fenwick hide in the closet to watch it happen, who is really standing on higher moral grounds here? When life gets this messy, people are bound to search for simplicity (Just look around yourself and you’ll know what I mean!).
Of all the relationships, Billy’s and Barbara’s is the most equal one, and yet it is the one that does not work. He feels compelled to do the right thing and she isn’t ready to marry for the sake of it. Barbara does not want (and rightly so!) to either give up her career or move to New York with Billy. As a blueprint for what’s to come, she is what they are not: a courageous visionary. In the end, it is Fenwick, the self-destructive and yet smart guy, with the most profound of insights. After Boogie’s chatting-up of a posh, horse riding girl by the side of the road, he questions ‘You ever get the feeling there’s something going on we don’t know about?’ In its apparent simplicity the question reaches for the core of ignorance, and where our values and prejudices might reside.
Diner is a magnificent piece of nostalgia where people like us feel threatened by things they don’t even know. As a slice of life, it depicts memorable characters with stoical realism and compassion, and makes the case for a simple-minded mentality. After all, as Modell has said: ‘People do not come from a swamp. People come from Europe.’