Diner, A Lost Movie Gem of the 80s

Diner came out in 1982. It was written and directed by Barry Levinson, whose work most people are likely familiar with. He also directed Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Bugsy and Wag the Dog. This movie likely isn’t as well known by younger generations as those other movies, and that’s a shame. It was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, and S.L. Price wrote this in Vanity Fair last year:

Yet no movie from the 1980s has proved more influential. Diner has had far more impact on pop culture than the stylistic masterpiece Bladerunner, the indie darling Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or the academic favorites Raging Bull and Blue Velvet.

It’s really one of the original “guy” movies. Movies like Reservoir Dogs and Swingers are spiritual successors to this period piece set in 1959. It seems like period pieces always hold up better because it’s always supposed to look like it’s from another generation, in a way that movies like The Breakfast Club just look funny now.

This movie is basically about six friends, one of whom is married, and another who is engaged. It’s a virtual certainty that anyone who has seen movies or TV over the last 20 years will recognize most, if not all of the cast: Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy), Paul Reiser (Mad About You), Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly (Wings) and Daniel Stern (Home Alone), whose character is married to Ellen Barkin (Ocean’s 13). All six of the guys are college-age and going through different parts of growing up. Rourke’s character is a ladies man, who works as a hairdresser and has a gambling problem. Stern and Barkin’s characters’ relationship is rocky. Bacon is a rich kid who is supposed to be at school, but seems to mostly be drunk. Guttenberg is engaged, and in the movie’s iconic scene, requires his fiancĂ© to take a complicated test on the Baltimore Colts football team in order to be worthy enough to marry him.

A large chunk of this movie is spent with some combination of the friends sitting around their diner chatting about life and other random topics. In the aforementioned Vanity Fair piece, Price talks about how this show is an influence on Seinfeld in the way that both are somewhat about “nothing.” The conversations in the diner feel a lot like the many conversations Seinfeld characters had in their coffee shop. I did not realize until reading the Vanity Fair piece, that the actors were encouraged to improvise, and that some of Reiser’s quirky remarks and conversations were him just ad-libbing. In retrospect (I last watched this movie a couple of months ago) that makes a lot of sense.

It has always amazed me how I almost never heard anyone I know talk about this movie (besides my dad who introduced it to me). It doesn’t feel old when you watch it even despite the fact that most of the actors in this movie are remembered by my generation for much more recent roles, as much older versions of themselves. While I don’t think this movie is for everyone, I think there is an untapped audience for it. People who appreciate good movies, and like somewhat nonsensical movies about people, like High Fidelity for example, should find this right in their wheelhouse.

The reality is that when this movie came out, it was incredibly unique, and now these movies are the norm. It likely got lost in the shuffle because for the most part is was not a great success. But as Price mentioned, many of the Judd Apatow films feel similar to this movie, particularly something like Knocked Up. While there isn’t the slapstick humor found in that movie, if you squint you can definitely see the connection between the meaningless conversations in the diner, to the meaningless conversations between Jason Segel, Jonah Hill, Seth Roget, et al.

Nowadays this movie doesn’t pop up very often. Turner Classics seems to be the only channel that would show it. So it might take some work for most people to find it. But if you appreciate good movies, it would be worth your time.