Due to an error in publishing this article too early, I give you the second part to my sixth part of my 80s movie retrospective. I hope this won’t happen too often. So, let’s proceed to another movie featuring Wallace Shawn in a restaurant.
The second portion of the retrospective was further delayed by me receiving out of the blue a PS5 from my godfather, for which I gratefully reimbursed him the money. I might do a deep dive into my first impressions with the system and several PS5 games I bought for the occasion.
Atlantic City (1980)
I initially skipped Atlantic City for reasons that were very much “by the cover”. It seemed like it would be a period piece set in the hey day of Atlantic City as the gambling mecca of the American East, like in Boardwalk Empire. I was dead wrong in that assumption.
Instead, it is a contemporary crime drama that acts as a bemused contemplation of Atlantic City’s checkered past through the eyes of two denizens: Sally, a young sushi waitress at a casino played by a youthful Susan Sarandon and Lou( Burt Lancaster), an aging gangster who misses the glory days of Atlantic City, not just because it was his time and it’s gone but because he wasn’t quite the Goodfella he wanted to be.
Sally’s pregnant and new-age obsessed sister comes to AC with her morally dubious boyfriend from Philadelphia looking for both a place to stay and also to strike it big with a block of cocaine, though the former doesn’t exactly know that. Sally has all but given up hope of her sister getting her life together, especially considering her poor taste in men. Lou is also burdened by being a caretaker for Grace, once a glamorous diva in the Atlantic City nightlife as well as widower to a big time mob boss.
These two put-upon figures who differ in age greatly come together, both seeking new opportunity and that block of cocaine becomes the catalyst for a string of tragedies, victories and dangers compounding upon further dangers. There is also something of a love story sprinkled in, but like the glitzy façade of Atlantic City, it is more one-sided in its affections than not.
Wallace Shawn does appear here, as promised by the header image, and it is a one scene role as waiter for Sally and Lou. Only now did I realize the connection between this film and My Dinner with Andre wasn’t coincidence. Louis Malle directs both films.
The most curious thing about Atlantic City, aside from its commentary on how Atlantic City is made out to be a much less glamorous and dare I say it honest place than it used to be is what message is meant to be extrapolated by its conclusion, which despite the reasonably long runtime, feels somewhat abrupt.
Does the film end on Sally succeeding, or Lou finding that Mafioso glory he didn’t actually have before? Is it condemnation or a marginal approval for criminal activity? Is it a rather odd way of expressing the idea of “passing the torch” to a new generation, all while the old accepts its fate of being phased out? The last image seems to be blunt about that message as the last shot is of a wrecking ball beginning its demolition of the apartment Sally and Lou lived in.
Or is it best just to view this, intentional or not, as a time capsule of a place known as Atlantic City, as seen in circa 1980 A.D.? For those who can’t make up their minds or don’t care all that much, I’d put my money there. Much like On Golden Pond for Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, it could also be a swan song feature for veteran Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster who though he lived for another 12 years, feels like he made this film as if it was his last, like it was in Fonda’s case.
The film that started Barry Levinson’s productive career in Hollywood and the first of 4 movies that deal with his birthplace of Baltimore as seen in his teenage years, the 1950s, Diner is also a film that all but introduced audiences to a healthy host of Hollywood talent.
In truth, this wasn’t the first film for all the actors and actresses here, but in terms of them turning heads, it’s as much a start as you can quantify. Here we have Steve Guttenberg, two years before the first of far too many Police Academy movies. Mickey Rourke, almost unrecognizable to how we see him now. Daniel Stern, eight years before he played the wet bandit that suffers the most in Home Alone.
Kevin Bacon, who is the master of appearing in cult classics and having him be separated by six degrees due to his impressive resume. Tim Daly, who I have heard of but am not as familiar of in comparison to the others’ roles. Actually, I have literally heard of Daly due to being the voice of Superman in the 90s’ animated series, though George Newbern’s take from the sequel Justice League series is more recognizable.
The main group is rounded out by Paul Reiser, four years before portraying Burke, the corporate slimeball in Aliens, and Ellen Barkin, whose character isn’t actually with the all-boys club, because it’s the 1950s and those six gentlemen are hardly as mature as their twenty-something ages would infer.
Levinson’s Diner, while definitely having nostalgia for the 1950s, is more critical and maybe even pessimistic over the practices of the time, namely in relation to how men acted and what women had to put up with in return. It’s a group of young men who have life issues which get in the way of what they want to do: eat, drink and shoot the shit at the titular diner. Some of them are married, one is getting married and one is two deep down a debt rabbit hole to even consider any kind of commitment like that if he even cares that much to begin with.
Whether it’s a grown man like Levinson taking the past or his own past to task or simply reflecting like an observer on the past is part of the fun a movie like Diner can offer. None of these characters are bad though their immaturity and being chained to their childhood/teenage habits can make them come across as ungentlemanly to say the least.
They also seem tormented by the cognitive dissonance that comes with living as a man in the 1950s: having so much freedom to do what you want yet having cultural norms or societal expectations keep you from either doing what you want or what you feel is you. Kevin Bacon getting drunk in a Christmas manger might be indicative of that point in particular or maybe I misremember the context.
Diner, for it’s wonderfully, appropriately laid back pace, is yet a complex feast. Six guys and a gal at a crossroads, where change is inevitable even though they give one hearty college try to postpone it. Some come to conclusions which may lead them to happiness, others capitulate to what is expected of them to their family and culture. Nothing stays the same and yet oddly enough, it still somehow does. Now, if that ain’t a still-accurate framing of life, I don’t know what is.
Diner is definitely worthy of the retroactive acclaim it’s gotten, though I struggle to know why some consider it a landmark piece of cinema. Maybe it’s the then unconventional manner of telling the story, it having no main character and yet being entirely coherent.
Maybe it was nice to have a throw back feature to a period that was already receiving surplus attention with rose-colored glasses as evidenced by Grease and American Graffiti. It wouldn’t be the last major feature to do a fun and nostalgia filled romp through the 1950s( Back to the Future) but Diner feels and perhaps gets major credit for being the most grounded of them all.