One of the best comedies of the 1980s, “Diner,” is about to get new life as a Broadway musical. Barry Levinson’s little film that could but almost didn’t is the stuff of Hollywood legend. The studios wanted to kill the movie because they couldn’t figure out how to market a film with a cast of unknown actors, no car chases, no nude teenagers and no aliens. That “Diner” ever saw the light of day and became a touchstone film for a generation is almost entirely due to renowned film critic Pauline Kael. Love her or hate her, and it is possible to do both from one review to another, the woman knew how to write and she knew how to use what little clout a famous movie critic actually carries when it comes to saving a good movie. While critics as an entity have often revealed a surprisingly robust power to destroy a movie, few individual critics have ever been capable of saving a movie they loved.
Kael’s review for “Diner” was overwhelmingly positive and suddenly the suits in charge were faced with the realization that they had a movie on their hands that one of the most famous movie critics ever was championing, but which they still couldn’t figure out how to sell. They never did figure it out and instead just chose to throw “Diner” out to movie theaters and see what happened. The comedy never exactly quite caught fire, but it became a modest little hit thanks to cable TV and it set the stage for the arrival of the most impressive list of unknown actors since “American Graffiti” was released ten years earlier: Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rourke. “Diner” was made on a budget of about five million dollars in 1982. By 1985 you couldn’t have made “Diner” with that cast of “unknown actors” for less than twenty million. And good luck getting it made for that little.
“Diner” has many little subplots going on within its story including Guttenberg’s character giving his fiancé a quiz on the history of the Baltimore Colts that she must pass or their wedding will be called off, Rourke’s attempts to raise money to pay off debts by getting one of the hottest girls in town to touch his…popcorn and Daley’s attempt to convince an old girlfriend to commit to a relationship. “Diner” also has memorable characters who make an impact without really having any particular well defined story; Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and Daniel Stern are the standouts here.
The problem with translating “Diner” to Broadway musical status is that the scenes that make the most impact upon your memory tend not to be the ones that serve those plots, but the ones that reveal those characters. The cornerstone of “Diner” is the hilarious conversations that take place both within and without the titular structure. Turning three, four, five and five way conversations about whether Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra is the better singer or debating the merits of the theory of evolution into Broadway hits seems dubious at best. There is one quote that absolutely must be turned into a showstopper, however: “I’ll hit you so hard I’ll kill your whole family.” Among the many memorable quotes to be found in “Diner” is this line delivered by Tim Daly that manages to stick out even more than the most thematically important line in the movie spoken by Kevin Bacon:
“Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about?”