Barry Levinson: Diner (1982) | poster excerpt

Barry Levinson’s 1982 ‘Diner’ Is a Film About Nothing That Still Means Something

Would Larry David’s “show about nothing”, Seinfeld, have been created if Barry Levinson’s film about nothing, Diner, hadn’t preceded it?

Barry Levinson
United Artists
2 March 1982 (US)

You don’t ask me things like that. You never ask me what’s on the flip side.

No. Because I don’t give a shit. Shrevie, who cares about what’s on the flip side of a record?

– Dialogue from Diner

As the 1980s dawned, future Oscar winner Barry Levinson was already an accomplished screenwriter, co-writing scripts for Norman Jewison’s …And Justice for All (1979), Richard Donner’s Inside Moves (1980) and a pair of Mel Brooks films, Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977). Encouraged in part by Brooks, Levinson wrote a screenplay based on his experiences as a young adult growing up in Baltimore. Diner, Levinson’s debut as a director, would have an overwhelming influence on the eventual stylistic shift in film and television.

Initial critics’ reviews of Diner were strong, bolstering the film’s reputation. “A wonderful movie,” raved legendary critic Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. Richard Corliss called it “wonderfully cast and played” in his review in Time. In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote, “Diner is often a very funny movie, although I laughed most freely not at the sexual pranks but at the movie’s accurate ear, as it reproduced dialogue with great comic accuracy.” In the New York Times, Janet Maslin raved, “Movies like Diner – fresh, well-acted and energetic American movies by new directors with the courage of their convictions – are an endangered species.”

Diner – released in theaters in March 1982 – was a sleeper of a film, not a box office bonanza by any stretch, although it received rave reviews and was nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar (losing to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi). It was one of many films released in the ‘80s that used the music and mood of the ’50s and ’60s as its backdrop but contains truckloads more authenticity than its more lucrative contemporaries like Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981) or Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987).

The artistic success of the film doesn’t end with period accuracy. One of the many features that make Diner “click” is its accurate ear for dialogue and the audience understanding that a film can contain a series of conversations and episodes without depending on a traditional plot. To paraphrase Seinfeld, Diner is a movie about nothing.

Yet, Diner was influential. Indeed, one wonders if Seinfeld would have been created without Levinson’s inspiration. Also, the opening restaurant scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) – where a group of bank robbers discusses the meaning of Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin” in hilarious detail over coffee before heading out for their next heist – could be seen as a scatological descendant of Diner. Author Nick Hornby has called the film “a work of great genius” and filmmaker Judd Apatow said in a 2012 Vanity Fair interview, “Anytime I have four or more people sitting around a table, I think about Diner…the naturalness and the humor that (Levinson) created – that’s the bar I’ve always tried to reach.”

The film also helped launch many acting careers. The large ensemble cast – Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser – consists mostly of actors who were at the beginning stages of their film careers and would go on to great success post-Diner.

Diner‘s story takes place in 1959, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in Baltimore. The plot – what there is of it – is fairly simple. A group of friends in their 20s – their ages are never specifically mentioned, although a few of them are in graduate school – spend most of their time hanging out in a local diner, talking about music, sports, food, women, and anything else that inspires, frustrates, or confuses them. Eddie (Guttenberg) is getting married on New Year’s Eve, but not before his fiancée, Elyse (Sharon Ziman), passes an oral quiz about the NFL. Billy (Daly) has since moved out of the Baltimore area but arrives in town in time for the wedding and to reconnect with his friends. Shrevie (Stern) is obsessed with music, to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife, Beth (Barkin). Meanwhile, ladies’ man Boogie (Rourke) places bets on anything and everything in an attempt to clear a $2k gambling debt.

The characters are rounded out by Fenwick (Bacon), a reckless alcoholic, and Modell (Reiser), the lighthearted comic relief, whose random observations predict Reiser’s real-life future as a standup comedian. (Riding in a car with Boogie, Modell muses, “You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance.”)

The male characters exude a fair amount of masculinity. It’s easy to blame that on the era (even though second-wave feminism had been active for decades, not all filmmakers absorbed its message), but it’s also important to note that the characters rarely interact with anyone morally sensible enough to call them on their sexist bullshit. Billy seems to be the more enlightened of the pack – in one scene, he’s shooting pool with Eddie and asking him why he’s getting married. Eddie responds callously, “Well it’s not like I’m doing it just to make her happy – to hell with that,” to which Billy retorts sarcastically, “No, you wouldn’t want to make her happy.”

In a later scene outside the diner, Eddie asks Shrevie if he’s happy with his marriage. Shrevie is at a loss for an answer. “I don’t know,” he says halfheartedly. Then he elaborates, “You know, I can come down here, we can bullshit the whole night away, but I cannot hold a five-minute conversation with Beth.” In a scene that’s equal parts maddening and heartbreaking, Shrevie verbally eviscerates Beth after she accidentally puts one of his records in the wrong part of his collection. To these men, women are a confusing species.

In spite of the problematic male attitudes that run rampant throughout Diner, it has an abundance of humor. The aimless scenes in the diner itself are timeless and endlessly quotable, from Modell and Eddie’s argument over a roast beef sandwich, the guys’ fascination with diner regular Earl, who orders and consumes the entire left side of the menu in one sitting (Modell: “He’s not a person, he’s like a building with feet”), and a heated discussion over which singer – Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis – makes better make-out music. (Shrevie is typically boneheaded when asked who he makes out to: “I’m married, we don’t make out,” he responds.) To these characters, the diner is a place to escape from the ordinary world. It’s an oasis of greasy food, cigarettes, and rock ‘n’ roll from the countertop jukeboxes.

Speaking of music – Diner is filled with wall-to-wall classics. The soundtrack is a wild grab bag that includes predictable crowd-pleasers (Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”) as well as bluesy singles from Lowell Fulson (“Reconsider Baby”) and Jimmy Reed (“Take Out Some Insurance”), and doo-wop gems like “Come Go With Me”, “A Thousand Miles Away” and “A Teenager in Love”. The songs provide the perfect ambiance, along with pitch-perfect set design: cars, suits, hairstyles, and furniture of the era are lovingly recreated with the kind of precision influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It’s possible the set designs in Diner provided period-piece inspiration to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.   

Diner‘s characters often exhibit unusual traits beyond the usual cookie-cutter types. Fenwick freely admits in a conversation with his brother that he never reads books, but in an earlier scene, he’s watching the quiz show College Bowl on television and correctly answering every question before the on-screen contestants. One of the film’s minor characters, Methan (Tait Rupper), wanders into a variety of scenes while quoting every line from his favorite film, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Sweet Smell of Succes (1957). Billy is incredulous: “He memorized the whole movie?” “Yeah,” Eddie says. “These younger kids…crazier than we were.”

Clearly, Diner has neither progressive characters nor enlightened attitudes. These men are essentially clueless and emotionally stunted. But in its defense, its final scene literally ushers in the 1960s, when – we hope – they will eventually mature and become more educated in the era of civil rights and gender equality. Indeed, aat one point near the end of the film, a genuinely contrite Shrevie seems to warm up to Beth in a brief, touching scene, hinting at the possibility that he is maturing.

Diner is not an ’80s film that is as regularly quotable to mainstream audiences as Dirty Dancing, Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987), or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986). But to those of us who grew up with it and return to it at times, Diner’s hilarious conversations such as about what’s on the flip side of a record resonate.