Film (1982) – The Hollywood Reporter

On April 2, 1982, MGM unveiled writer-director Barry Levinson’s feature debut, Diner, at the New York Film Festival. The film went on to land an Oscar nomination for screenplay at the 55th Academy Awards. The original Hollywood Reporter review is below:

Behind a rather simplistic and misleading title, MGM’s dinner is a warmly written, engagingly performed, and utterly captivating “personal” picture that could, if muscle and patience are applied, become a sleeper for Culver City society. It will be a hard sell, but it’s worth it.

The film is a directorial debut for screenwriter Barry (And justice for all, Inner movements) Levinson, based on his own experiences growing up in Baltimore, circa 1959, a time when guys still wore jackets and ties as a matter of daily habit, watched Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee movies, collected 45 records turns and otherwise faced the same problems of the newly born adult world that every soul has had before and since.

He gives dinner a slice of universality and nostalgia, which many moviegoers will find irresistible, if it can be pulled off at the box office. The image does not (yet) have any impact names, so its other virtues will have to be the decoy, as was the case with Come off and four friendstwo recent movies dinner resembles in flavor and attitude, if not in actual disrepair.

In fact, Levinson and producer Jerry Weintraub could have easily labeled this “Five Friends” because it covers a tight-knit series of incidents in the post-high school lives of five pals as they begin to fumble their way into the world. The peg, chosen by Levinson to hang on his story, is the upcoming wedding of one of the quintets (Steve Guttenberg) amid some doubts, leading to cross inspections of the lives of the other four.

One (Daniel Stern) is already married and finds it difficult to talk to his young wife (Ellen Barkin) because before the wedding vows their relationship was mostly based on discussing or attempting sex, which goes now self. Another (Mickey Rourke) is a ladies’ man who works as a hairdresser by day, goes to law school by night, and has a penchant for gambling that ends up giving him serious scratches. A third in the group (Timothy Daly) attends college but comes to worry about doing good by a pregnant girlfriend (Kathryn Dowling) while the fourth (Kevin Bacon) is a mental but immature ace, at odds with his family and on a frenzy of self-destruction.

Levinson, both as writer and director, slowly unveils each man, using the Fells Point Diner as a hub and playing much of the action at night, which gives much of the film a dark appeal. and almost black mood. Although several scenes seem improvised – in particular a large meeting between Guttenberg and Paul Reiser over a meal in the restaurant – there is clearly a strong scenario here, without heavy but otherwise lavishly endowed drama. If it has one main flaw, it’s only that it runs for a long time at nearly two hours.

The acting and the relationship between the performers are excellent all along the line, starting with Guttenberg, who is nicely mastered by his imitation of Betty Hutton in Can’t stop the music. It’s only during a dance track(?) in a striptease that the Hutton side reappears, otherwise it’s wonderfully under control, even if a bit hard to swallow as a virgin (with that nerve?). Stern, Rourke, Bacon, Daly and Reiser are all fair, likable and interesting, with good on-screen personalities that bode well for future contributions to cinema as well.

Since dinner is clearly told from a male point of view that the women are entirely additional – Guttenberg’s bride is never shown, even during the climactic wedding sequence, a nice touch – and deliberate – but Ellen Barkin has a powerful scene in as Stern’s frustrated wife, and Kathryn Dowling is good as the TV career girl involved with Daly. Jessica James, long-running Broadway ending Gemini and short term little mealso has fun moments as Guttenberg’s non-stereotypical mother.

Cinematography by Peter Sova, art direction by Leon Harris, and costumes by Gloria Gresham, plus visual consultant Gene Rudolf, perfectly create late 1950s Baltimore during a balmy winter season, adding a super strong plus to the overall impact. The music, overseen by Harry V. Lojewski, also makes a major contribution to creating 50s feeling, with familiar tunes echoing across the soundtrack, punctuated by Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Dion and the Belmonts , Jane Morgan, Dick Haymes and Elvis Presley.

In all, dinner is a worthwhile dish, definitely the best thing Leo the Lion has had to roar in quite some time. — Robert Osborne, originally published March 3, 1982.

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