Time was when just flashing the words "Baltimore, 1959" on a screen would have gotten a laugh in Washington. That was before Harbor Place and a few other improvements that have instilled a bit of respect around here.
However, a Baltimorean, Barry Levinson, has prefaced his film "Diner" with those words, and followed it with a long tribute to the ickiness of the time and place, done with indulgent fondness and a slight amount of humor.
The movie is about five young men, high- school classmates who are now in their early 20s, hanging around a diner in Baltimore talking about nothing in particular and doing nothing in particular. The one spark of interest they manage is in drumming up friendly competition on the subjects of sex, football, eating, popular music and movies. Mind you, they're not devoted to the subjects themselves; on that matter of sex, for example, the one married boy of the lot explains that it's no fun when your partner is willing and available. But debating and betting among the boys what one of them can get a girl to do -- that they find fun.
They wager on how much a person can eat. An engaged boy demands that his fiancee pass a quiz on football trivia, or the wedding will be off. The married one asserts his worthiness to his wife by demonstrating that he can name the flip sides of every record in his collection, as well as the color of the label.
This is not really riveting material if you didn't go to high school with these boys, and perhaps not even if you did. Played by Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon and Timothy Daly, they seem fundamentally decent, but hopelessly trapped in the limits of the time and place. That grubby atmosphere, looked upon as endearing, is the only thing the film has to offer, and while it's amusing at first, one quickly gets the idea.
There isn't even any indication that the characters' lives could possibly pick up later, although presumably one such loser became a successful moviemaker. But then, who would have known, either, that Baltimore was going to turn into a sophisticated city?
DINER -- At the Dupont Circle.