Long before Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created “A show about nothing,” a first-time director and seven utterly unknown actors made a movie about nothing. The year was 1982, and the film, without question my favorite one of all time, was Diner. It was directed by Barry Levinson, a resident of Baltimore, MD. where the plot took place, who would go on to make such movies as Rain Man, The Natural, Good Morning Vietnam, Bugsy and Wag The Dog (as well as three other movies also set in Baltimore, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights). The incredible ensemble cast was made up of that septet of future stars, none of whom, at that time, could’ve attracted the attention of a Hollywood agent unless he’d proverbially tripped over them: Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, and the token female, Ellen Barkin. And about that “plot.” I mean, sure, things did occur in the movie: Bacon attacks the Three Wise Men in a Nativity display; Guttenberg makes his fiancée take a Baltimore Colts trivia test in order to go through with the wedding; Daly punches out Willard Broxton to avenge a baseball feud from 10th grade; and Rourke shares an eventful box of popcorn with Carol Heathrow. Stuff does happen, and there is some loosely formed narrative. But the only thing that truly matters about the film, the single factor that makes it so special, is just this: the dialogue. For most of the movie, it’s just a bunch of friends, regular guys, talking to each other, very often in the diner, mostly about nothing. And as Seinfeld himself might say, the conversations are real, and they’re spectacular.
Levinson, who was 40 when the movie came out, not only directed Diner he wrote the screenplay, a script that he termed “semi-autobiographical.” There’s a rhythm in the way long-time male friends of shared experiences talk to each other, the nicknames, the nonsensical banter, the flow of insults, the harping on reminiscences, the avoidance of seriousness, and, if you’re lucky, the deep level of caring that lies beneath it all. And Levinson nailed it all. Just absolutely nailed it.
And such is the environment whereby lines like these can escalate from humdrum to hysterical:
“You never ask me what’s on the flip side”
“You gonna finish that?”¹
“Do you ever get the feeling there’s something going on we don’t know about?”
“You know what word I’m not comfortable with? Nuance”
“You’ve just gone down two steps in my…my book!”
“It’s Ripley’s, I’m tellin’ ya”
“No, passing is 65”
“Definitely the smile of the week”
“The whole left side of the menu”
“It was pecker-touching without intention”
If you’re a fan of Diner I know you’re giggling. If you’re not, I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, and getting the same twisted look on your face that Ellen Barkin had when Daniel Stern was berating her about how not to file his records.
And about those records. Oh, there was some truly great music in Diner, terrific tunes from the late ‘50’s (the story takes place in 1959) by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, Dion & The Belmonts, Fats Domino, Bobby Darin, Jimmy Reed, and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. But for our featured tune I’m picking none of those. Instead, let’s feature a Diner original – the nameless instrumental from the strip joint scene where a hyper-anxious Tim Daly takes over the piano, rouses the somnambulant band and has Steve Guttenberg join him onstage to shimmy with a stripper. All occurring because Daly couldn’t help asking the immortal question: “You gonna pick up the beat?!”
¹The roast beef sandwich