Saturday, June 2, 2018

10 Films in 10 Days: #10 - Diner

The final of my 10 films in 10 days is Diner (1982), another one from college. Diner was one of the earliest examples of a “sleeper” hit that was saved by famed film critic Pauline Kael. The film reportedly had screened badly with test audiences and MGM was ready to bury it. However, after Kael saw it, she insisted MGM release it, promising it would review well—which it did. I was so taken by this movie on its release, I saw it three times in a week in the theater. (Of course, I also own it on DVD.)

The film comedy was the directorial debut of Barry Levinson, who also wrote the screenplay, and featured actors Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin. (With the exception of perhaps Guttenberg, this was the film debut for most of the actors.)

Based on Levinson’s own experiences as a Baltimore native, Diner follows the episodic misadventures of a group of recent high school graduates in late 1950s Baltimore trying to decide what to do with their lives, centered around the week leading up to one of the friends’ wedding. (For the wedding to occur, however, the bride-to-be, who is never seen on screen, must pass a test about football!) Much of their lives centers around hanging out and eating at a local diner, often into the early morning hours.

I suspect the studio thought it had green-lit a film to capitalize on the teen comedy hit Porky's and did not expect such a soulful, thoughtful film. While the story and characters are all distinctive and well-defined—due to both the script and performances—it is the pointless but hilarious banter in the diner, much of it ringing true and reportedly ad-libbed by the actors, that helped give the film a sense of character and verisimilitude, and made it so memorable. The film no doubt resonated with audiences for many reasons, but it wonderfully captures the essence of youthful male friendship. Indeed, it was a touchstone for many of my college buddies as well—we watched it on a movie night once and often made it a point to take a “Diner” photo—a recreation of the Diner poster of the principal cast gathered around a dinner table in the afterglow of a wedding—at each other’s marriages.

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