Monday, October 27, 2008

Netflix pick of the month: DINER

Yes, I see the irony. Yesterday I’m ranting about movie critics and here I am reviewing a movie. But part of the fun of this blog is (a) being a hypocrite, and (b) having the forum to recommend offbeat things you guys might enjoy. DINER is my Neflix Pick of the Month.
It’s Barry Levinson’s first and best film. He’s certainly done others that are good (e.g. the NATURAL), but none that are as heartfelt, hilarious, or real as DINER. His subsequent work is marked with a real Hollywood slickness that is refreshingly absent in this debut effort.

Every moment rings true.

DINER (released in 1982), is set in Baltimore in 1959 – a longtime favorite place and time of moviegoers everywhere. It’s also semi-autobiographical. Levinson had the good fortune to grow up with some wonderfully colorful characters. If I tried to do the same movie based on my friends you’d be watching five geeks bitching about how they can’t get their SANFORD & SON specs read.

Storywise, it’s a series of subplots that wrap around each other like a helix. Imagine AMERICAN GRAFFITI with Jews. But the focus is the diner where these guys just hang out. And the improvised scenes of them bullshitting about absolutely nothing are more riveting and entertaining than all the Michael Bay action sequences combined. Paul Reiser has never been better, possibly because his character was supposed to never shut up.

The ensemble cast was pitch perfect, even Steve Guttenberg. For those not familiar with Mr. Guttenberg, he was the Seth Rogen of his day (but not nearly as funny). For about a ten-year period he was in every movie ever produced save for Merchant-Ivory epics. He plays a guy about to get married but won’t finalize the engagement until his fiancĂ© passes a written exam on the history of his beloved Baltimore Colts. I loved the movie for that subplot alone.

Newcomer Mickey Rourke, plays “Boogie”, a real life Fonzie. I got to know the actual Boogie (Leonard Weinglass) when I broadcast for the Orioles. In the late 60s he opened a woman’s clothing store chain called Merry-Go-Round and made a fortune. He later combined it with a diner. Name me a better combination than summer tops and chili fries.

There’s also Kevin Bacon but he was in every ensemble cast, which is why you can play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” and somehow link him to Cheetah the Chimp in only five moves. Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, and Ellen Barkin also deserve shout-outs.

DINER almost makes you wish you were part of that group; that you too squandered your entire youth eating patty melts and arguing over Sinatra’s discography. I can think of no higher praise for a movie… especially one set in Baltimore.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I vote for AVALON, a truly superb piece of writing and directing from Mr. Levinson, not to mention some fine performances he got from his actors. Beautifully shot and scored, it's right up there with DINER, TIN MEN and THE NATURAL.

Just for Fun said...

I vote for WRISTCUTTERS--yeah, it's fairly new, but heck, it's still pretty good.

Gnasche said...

I love this movie. However, it should probably be held accountable for inspiring so many first-time writers to write a coming-of-age screenplay based on personal experiences.

Mine was crap.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...

Diner is a perfect little movie. Pretty good for a guy who graduated 460th out of 460.

According to the introduction for a collection of three Levinson screenplays -Diner, Tin Men, Avalon- Barry Levinson put on the Pete Townsend album "Empty Glass" and kept playing it as he wrote Diner on a legal pad --in three weeks.

mp said...

Trips to "Merry-Go-Round" stores - crushing disappointment everytime for a very young MP. Might as well rename the dentist "Funland".

Rich Shealer said...

My folks live in Baltimore. One fine summer day we were talking a long walk from the University area of Greenway down to the relatively new Inner Harbor. Along the way we noticed Christmas decorations mounted on light poles and store windows. How odd.

It wasn't until about a year and half later while watching "Diner" on VHS did we realize the decorations were for the movie. Christmas in the summer.

It's one of my favorites, and you can't forget the Popcorn Trick.

Rich Shealer

Mac said...

I own very few DVDs, but Diner was the first one I bought. (Along with Local Hero.) Re: Reiser, I remember reading somewhere his role was written much smaller, but his improvising on the set was cracking everyone up so much they just let him go for it.

Anonymous said...

Its been a long time since I saw Diner. I think i would really enjoy it again. I love scenes where a group cast sit around in a diner just talking away.

Remember the scenes from Broadway Danny Rose, when the guys that were sitting around in the diner/restaurant reminded each other of stories about Danny Rose? Loved it...

Tracy said...

My husband loved Diner, me not so much, but we both loved Avalon. That movie could have been about his family.

Oh and I totally have a crush on Tim Daly, would you mind telling him that next time you bump into him? Thanks:)

D. McEwan said...

Speaking of dining (Okay, it's a reach, but I've never seen DINER.), I'm just home from Taco Bell, having enjoyed my free taco. Yummy. Thanks. I wouldn't have known about it if I hadn't read about it here.

Regarding: "For those not familiar with Mr. Guttenberg, he was the Seth Rogen of his day (but not nearly as funny)."

And also about a thousand times sexier! (Back in the day. NOT now!) while Steve wasn't much of an actor, and wasn't particualrly funny, but in the 1980s, when he took his shirt, or in his Invisible Man "Comedy," all of his clothes off, he was one fine speciman of hot manhood. His sex-with-an-alien scene in COCOON was the highlight of the film for me. (Okay, Don Ameche's stunt double break dancing was cool too.)

Steve was lame but hot. Seth is funny, but sexually, a blob. The very idea of Seth Rogan doing pretend porn in his new, can't-see-it-in-Utah movie is enough to make my skin crawl.

K said...

My parents were born around in 1933 and 1934. I was born in 1963 so I was 18 when Diner came out. My folks were not big movie goers and certainly were not in the habit of encouraging us to see R movies, but somehow they saw Diner and INSISTED that my 17 year old brother and I see it, too. They said it captured their youth better than any other movie, even though my dad grew up in Miami and my mother in Iowa. Luckily, we didn't have to go with them but I remember how shocked my brother and I were that our parents might have been like that growing up.
Katy

estiv said...

I also loved the scene of Daniel Stern arguing with Ellen Barkin for failing to replace an LP back into its precise location in his perfectly alphabetized collection. The look on her face, of hurt, baffled innocence trying to figure out why the man she loves is treating her this way...wow. So real, so sad, but also, in spite of the way I've described it, a very funny scene.

After seeing this movie, I gave the Baltimore Colts quiz to a guy at work who was from there. He would have been about six years old in 1959, but he knew all the answers off the top of his head. Which I guess kind of shows that there was very little exaggeration in the movie.

gottacook said...

What you suggest in your last paragraph - "almost makes you wish you were part of that group" - is, I think, an attribute of a very special kind of good art: the quality of making you nostalgic for what you never experienced in the first place. A few other Levinson movies have that quality too, such as AVALON. (Notably, AMERICAN GRAFFITI doesn't have that quality, at least not for me.)

DW said...

How much more fun can "Diner" be?
From the Baltimore Colts quiz ...
baloney sandwiches ... fries with gravy ... fat guy who eats whole sides of menus driving away in a little car ... the GE College Bowl ... and the guy who recites lines from "Sweet Smell of Success" all through the diner.
What a way to start a movie dynasty!

Anonymous said...

Good pick, Ken.
This is a great little gem - extremely funny, with great dialogue. It also has a soulful sweetness. All the characters are losers. They are going nowhere and care about unimportant things. They don't seem to understand love, women, and marriage. Yet, we identify with them, and like them.

My pick -- IN BRUGES with Colin Farrell. Small indie that came out earlier this year. He is excellent in this and finally shows he can act. Darkly funny yet brutally violent. Highly recommended.

Stu said...

Have you read "Diner Guys" by Chip Silverman? It's like a companion piece to the movie and it really adds some meat to the movie stories.

Diner is a fantastic film - One of the best freshman efforts ever.