It’s always impressive when someone puts together a large ensemble of A-list stars, before any of them reached the A-list. Richard Linklater did it in the 90s with Dazed and Confused, filled with soon to be big names like Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Parker Posey and Matthew McConaughey. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola did it with The Outsiders, starting a pre-fame Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Esteves and Tom Cruise. And the very next year, fist time director Barry Levinson managed to put together a similarly impressive cast of then nobodies, with Diner.
Semi-autobiographical about his own time as a young adult in Baltimore, Diner opens on Christmas night in 1959. Boogie (Mickey Rourke), Fen (Kevin Bacon), Shrevie (Daniel Stern) and Modell (Paul Reiser) are all aimlessly shooting the shit at a diner, getting ready for the upcoming weeding of their friend, Eddie (Steve Guttenberg). When they finally call it a night in the early hours of the morning, they’re just in time to pick up the last member of their group from the train station, Billy (Tim Daly).
These dudes have known each other since school, and are all at different stages of accepting, or rejecting their adulthood. Shrevie already married for several years and entrenched in his mind numbing day job, Boogie putting off law school while piling up gambling debts with a local bookie, Billy putting off real life by studying for his masters, Eddie trying to derail his own wedding, and Fen drinking himself into oblivion to avoid his own family issues.
Diner is full of long, meandering conversations where the fact that they often talk about nothing tells you everything you need to know about these characters. The endless hours of talking while drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and eating bad food until dawn are just as much about avoiding their real lives, than they are about friends enjoying each other’s company.
The entire ensemble delivers really solid performances, and it’s obvious why all of then went on to significant success soon after this, but the one that really hit me was Kevin Bacon as the spoiled little rich kid, Fenwick. It made me realise how many great movies he’s made over the years and how it’s a bit of a shame that I can’t think of a single one from the last decade or so. Mystic River is the last one that comes to mind, and that was made in 2003.
After Diner, Levinson would go on to make Good Morning Vietnam, Bugsy and even win an Oscar for Rain Man. Mickey Rourke and Steve Guttenberg both had different versions of movie superstardom on what was left the 80s. Stern, Reiser and Daly all had long running TV sitcom success. And Kevin Bacon probably had the most steady work of any of them, starring in some pretty massive hits, like Apollo 13, A Few Good Men, JFK and Sleepers. All of that makes a good movie like Diner seem even more impressive.
Or, more accurately, I guess it makes Levinson more impressive. He couldn’t have had the biggest budget for his debut, so big stars were out of the question. Instead, he just cast five blokes who would have come cheap at the time, before becoming big stars five minutes after he finished filming.