Diner is a great movie, worthy of the popular comparisons to Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni, another coming-of-age film in which the male director turns a bemused, pitiless gaze on the behavior of young men who don't get enough tail or for whom tail is no longer enough. James Wolcott remembers his favorite moment: the roast beef sandwich exchange between Paul Reiser and Steve Guttenberg, watched by Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon as grinning Furies. Sure, Quentin Tarantino no doubt rewound this scene at the video store at which he worked many times; the rhythms predict what he'd do with a half dozen hit men in a coffee shop discussing the decline of Madonna's songwriting.
According to Wolcott, Pauline Kael (whose review of this unreleased film in 1982 was instrumental in getting it played somewhere, anywhere) admitted her own bafflement at the screening -- the young Wolcott served as "interpreter to [Diner's] strange tribal ways." Even acknowledging how familiarity dulls us to an older generation's shock, I can't say what struck her as so weird about the roast beef scene. My favorites moments in Diner rely on the "disjointed" rhythms that Wolcott mentions. The post-introductory credits school dance, for example, at which we meet most of the main characters, features Mickey Rourke descending to a basement to rescue a shockingly young, callow, harmless Kevin Bacon. Rourke interrupts Bacon smashing windows. When asked why, Bacon shrugs and says, "For a smile." As we later discover, it's a perfect encapsulation of this spontaneous, doomed character, but in that minute it has the smell of something offhand that analysis can't contain -- it evokes life as lived. I felt protective of Bacon, and Rourke's slight pause as he tries to figure out how to respond is an echo; he wants to protect his buddy too.
Another gem: the close-up of Tim Daly as he stares stolidly into space, while Guttenberg and his mother reenact their habitual coming-home argument: he wants a bologna sandwich, she won't make it, he insists, she surrenders. Daly, also home for the holidays, knows how this scene will play, and he's bored stiff; but we know he'll be back next year, and he'll protect his integrity by signaling his boredom again.
It's true: with the exception of Bacon, and maybe Barkin, not one of the actors has struck these grace notes, or pulled something notable out of themselves this notable again (I say this as a fan of Reiser's King Smarm turn in Aliens). Nor Levinson, for that matter.