Tribute

Little Big Moviemaker
Barry Levinson's Diner won plaudits like "minor miracle" when it opened in 1982. The qualifier "minor" turned up because critics like myself who loved the film didn't want to burden it with overly high expectations. Of course, audiences lucky enough to live near the mere 200 theaters that screened the picture adored it; and video-renters have awarded it the kind of protective loyalty that comes only to great movies that are both penetrating and hilarious. Its influence has encompassed not just other films, but also TV and one-man shows and radio and comedy clubs -- pop culture as experienced in the streets.

Today's mass-audience mania for observational humor is rooted in Diner. For generations of comic artists, it proved the potency of nuance. Near the beginning, Paul Reiser, as a moocher named Modell, riffs, "You know what word I'm not comfortable with? Nuance. It's not really a word like -- gesture. Gesture is a good word. At least you know where you stand with gesture ... But nuance, I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong." The movie shows that Modell is wrong. It's no accident that the company co-producing Mad About You is called Nuance Productions.

There's a straight line from the guys in Diner spinning their wheels in continual diner talkfests, betting whether one of them can get the neighborhood beauty to "go for his pecker" on the first date, to the Seinfeld gang's spinning their wheels in continual diner talkfests and conniving to discover whether a woman's perfect breasts are perfectly real. There's an even closer connection between Daniel Stern's Diner character, Shrevie, going crazy because his wife says she "doesn't give a shit" about the flip side of "Good Golly, Miss Molly" and Reiser on a vintage episode of Mad About You complaining that his wife (Helen Hunt) didn't love the Beatles enough before she met him. Before pop psychologists and sociologists began describing Americans as commitment-phobes and Peter Pans prone to staying with Mom and Pop into their 30s, Levinson etched life as it is lived on the postponement plan. And just as post-'60s novelists have spun pop-culture fetishes into Proustian (or Nabokovian) obsessions, Levinson's characters use their fixations on everything from the Baltimore Colts to the relative merits of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Elvis Presley to fill up the hollows of a post-adolescent, ersatz-adult limbo. Kevin Bacon's Fenwick may be smarter and quicker than the college nerds he watches playing College Bowl on TV, but he can't help asking Boogie (Mickey Rourke), "You get the feeling there's something going on we don't know about?"

Right from the beginning of his career, Levinson showed a masterly use of vivid colloquial language in a style that could be called "the demonic demotic" -- for example, the diner guys refer to beautiful gals as "death." No wonder he's turned into a tough, sharp collaborator for brilliant, idiosyncratic word-men like James Toback (who wrote Bugsy) and David Mamet (who wrote the convulsively funny political comedy Wag the Dog, due out next year). And Levinson tapped veins of acting talent that have yet to be exploited. Bacon, in particular, hasn't reached his proper ascendance as the tarnished golden boy with a killer smile. Diner is a bigger work than any of its successors; it still leaves you with a sense of possibilities lost -- and found.

-- Michael Sragow

The tribute to Barry Levinson is Thursday, Oct. 9, at 6:30 p.m. at the Sequoia Twin Theaters, 25 Throckmorton in Mill Valley. The evening includes a screening of Levinson's Tin Men, and a program with clips and an onstage interview. It's $20, $40 including a post-show reception. Call 383-5346 for more information.

 
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