A Four-Star Diner
The Diner Directed by Barry Levinson Coming to the Nickelodeon April 16
IF THE DINER were set in some European capital, it would easily qualify as an "art film". It is a lushly filmed story of growing up, of five young men coming to grips with maturity, probably a little sooner than they would have liked.
But the movie takes place in 1959 Baltimore, and, to the strains of Chuck Berry, Frank Sinatra and early rock and roll, these five men spend most of their time wisecracking, playing practical jokes, and commiserating about women.
They cannot understand women, cannot communicate with them. Their dates are elaborate games in which bets are placed as to how far the action will go, and which provide grist for a good week of boasting. Even the one member of the group who is married, Shrevie (Daniel Stern), eventually tells a friend that marriage is "all right," but that he honestly can't hold a conversation with his wife for more than five minutes.
But magica'; when the guys strut into the all-night Falls point Diner, order fresh fries with gravy, and sit down together, everything is all right again. To a large extent, this is a movie about that great American theme of just finding a place to be. Ever since Huck Finn set off on his raft to leave the complications of civilization behind. Americans have been searching for a place just to relax and be themselves. The diner is just such a place.
There are no women in the diner, or at least none with any speaking lines. Crammed into a tight booth and certain of their terrain, the guys can relax and laugh at the world around them. At the weird kid who memorizes all the lines from the movie Sweet, Sweet Success and recites them to no one in particular. At the enormously obese man who manages to consume all of the items on the left side of the menu--"that's not a human," someone exclaims, "it's a building with legs."
THE MOST WINNING PART of this winning picture is the deeply felt characters that writer and director Barry Levinson has sketched out. Most complex, perhaps, is Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), whom we first see punching out window panes at a dance because on a whim he has just sold for five dollars the girl he brought. At first he seems like a typical 1950s tough, who is alternating between boasting and acting morose, playing sick practical jokes on his buddies, and finally flipping out at a nativity scene, stripping to his short and insisting on playing little baby Jesus. But Fenwick is clearly a lot more complex than all this, which we see in a revealing scene in which he sits alone in his room watching college Bowl, and beats Cornell and Bryn Mawr to the punch on every question. He's a great, messed-up kid, perhaps on his way to being an alcoholic.
Boogie (Michael Rourke) is another of these seemingly lost causes. He works days at a beauty parlor, but his real life is gambling, chasing women. He goes to law school part-time, but it's really no big deal. When he's forced to give up law school to work in a home repair shop, he tells his future boss that it's all right, since he was only going to law school as a come-on to girls, anyway.
The most confused of the whole lot, however, seems to be Eddie (Steve Guttenberg); a smiling, easy-going Baltimore Colts fan. He has decided to tie the knot, but, in a hilarious bit of Americana (which rings amazingly true), agrees to marry the woman in question only if she can pass a mammoth 100-question football trivia quiz, with questions like what the team colors were of teams before the formation of the National Football League. He says the test is to insure that they'll have something to talk about when they're married, but it appears more like a matter of entering a frightening stage of adulthood, and falling back on the only thing he can count on--football.
THE INCREDIBLE THING about their little world is just how self-contained it all is. The men all listen to the same music and debate the merits of Sinatra vs. Mathis. They go to the same movie theaters on the weekend, date the same women, and of course all meet up again at the diner to compare notes.
Some of the funniest, most touching scenes are when the guys realize that there's some kind of a world out there, outside of Baltimore. They see a Bergman film and struggle with the symbolism. "I've been to Atlantic City hundreds of times, and I've never seen death walking on the beach," one of them says, but even if they seem a bit slow at times, one can almost feel them growing up all the same. When Boogie and Eddie are driving along and meet up with a suave, sophisticated horseback rider, who's the kind of self-assured, intelligent woman they seem never to have seen before, Boogie exclaims. "Do you ever get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?"
Of course, that's the whole point of growing up, and by the end of the movie you get the firm impression that there's a lot less getting by the guys. In the final scene, when Eddie and his girlfriend finally do get married, owing to her prodigious performance on the football trivia quiz, the bridal bouquet falls on the table where the guys are sitting. The ending is just the right bit upbeat. These guys are going to grow up; they'll somehow make it out of this world all right. Just look at what happened to Barry Levinson--he got out and made it to Hollywood, where he put together this wise, introspective, totally four-star diner.