Los Angeles Times

Liberty Heights

Wednesday November 17, 1999

     For writer-director Barry Levinson, "Liberty Heights" is one from the heart.
     The fourth film to be set in his native Baltimore (following "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon"), this is a mature, accomplished piece of work, both funny and deeply felt, personal cinema of the best kind. Older now, seeing more, understanding more but caring just as much, Levinson has made the memory film we always hoped he would.
     Though its focus on Baltimore's Jewish community in the fall of 1954 couldn't be more specific, the issues and themes "Liberty Heights" raises, its focus on the dreams, diversions and disappointments of an increasingly multicultural America, have a universal taste of life about them.
     Levinson has done this, ironically, by embracing specificity, by having characters (unlike those in "Avalon," who never mention their Jewishness) proudly screaming out car windows as they drive from their Liberty Heights neighborhood into a Gentile area, "Get ready, folks, Jews are coming."
     For Baltimore in 1954 was still a place where you could divine people's religion and ethnicity by asking where they lived. But the Supreme Court had just desegregated the schools, barriers of all kinds were breaking down, and the reality of a more open America was beckoning everyone, even Nate and Ada Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth) and their sons Van and Ben (Adrien Brody and Ben Foster).
     "Liberty Heights" is at its funniest exposing the contours of the Kurtzmans' doomed all-Jewish world, complete with an irascible old-country grandmother (Frania Rubinek), who insists "if it's in the Bible, it's for a reason." And what specifically might that reason be? "A good reason."
     Reading from a school essay describing his still younger years, Ben recounts (and we hilariously see) his confusion at coming across Wonder bread at a small friend's house. "Everything was white, there's too much white stuff," he wails to his mother, who nods and says ominously of the visited family, "They're the other kind."
     Though Ben, now in high school, has already learned that "99% of the world is not Jewish," there's a lot he and the college-going Van don't know about what it's like to be "the other kind." For both brothers, forbidden romance will aid in the getting of wisdom, and "Liberty Heights" expertly intertwines their stories with another cross-cultural difficulty, one their father has managing his unconventional business.
     The world and, more important, the IRS, think the source of Nate Kurtzman's income is a collapsing burlesque house on Baltimore's famous Block. But it actually comes from the numbers business, a gambling enterprise so beyond the pale it's never even mentioned at home. Desperate to drum up more customers, Nate and his associates come up with a bonus system, but when a small-time black drug dealer named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits his number big, Nate faces a crisis that taxes even his considerable toughness and ingenuity.
     Ben, meanwhile, has become fascinated with Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black student in his homeroom. The daughter of a prominent surgeon, elegant and self-possessed, Sylvia is not only a world away from Little Melvin, she is a world away from Ben as well.
     Still, despite opposition from both sets of parents--her father has a rule against white boyfriends and his mother simply says, "Just kill me now!"--Ben and Sylvia find themselves really liking each other and wanting to spend time together.
     Theirs is the sweetest of friendships, even extending to a joint visit to a lovingly re-created James Brown concert, but like everything else about "Liberty Heights," it manages to be clear-eyed and unsentimental as well as warm. Both Ben and his friends have accumulated considerable prejudice, old wives' tales and just plain ignorance and misinformation about blacks (not to mention about sex, but that's another story), which this relationship gracefully and often amusingly disabuses him of.
     Van's romantic entanglement is just as forbidden. At a Halloween party in a Gentile neighborhood, while his friend Yussel (David Krumholtz) is getting into a bravado-induced fight for refusing to admit he's Jewish, dark and poetic-looking Van gets intoxicated with Dubbie (model Carolyn Murphy), a kind of ultimate shiksa goddess who is involved with a wealthy fellow socialite named Trey (Justin Chambers) who drinks too much and drives too fast.
     The experienced Brody ("King of the Hill," "Summer of Sam") brings a fine poetic grace to the part of Van, and it is a tribute to Levinson's sensitive direction (and Ellen Chenoweth's adroit casting) that he gets equally strong performances out of the film's numerous first-time feature actors, including Foster, Johnson, Murphy, Chambers and Jones. Not even born when this film takes place, they've managed to recapture its nuances with remarkable fidelity.
     But it's Levinson who's given them such rich and often comic things to say, who understands how to structure great riffs that seem to come out of nowhere. So we have Ben and his pals, faced with a sign reading "No Jews, Dogs or Colored," wondering how Jews got the first position, or Yussel's tirade about anti-Semitism. "They all pray to a Jew," he fumes. "I guess it's OK to have a dead Jew hanging over your bed but not to have one come in the front door."
     Levinson's storytelling style has always been on the discursive side, and "Liberty Heights," ebbing and flowing like a river of memory, shows that technique to its best advantage. There's almost a free-form quality to the narrative as stories weave in and out of one another, meandering a bit but never losing their novelistic grasp of feeling and atmosphere.
     Aiding in the creation of that atmosphere is an eclectic soundtrack (from the Midnighters' "Annie Had a Baby" to Mandy Patinkin singing the Yiddish classic "Mein Shtetele Belz") that is a living presence in the film, as well as the fine work of the film's production talents. These include previous Levinson collaborators Stu Linder (editor) and Vincent Peranio (production designer) as well as the brilliant Hong Kong-based cinematographer Chris Doyle, a master of color and mood.
     Though the film's advertising tag line ("You're Only Young Once, but You Remember Forever") sells it that way, "Liberty Heights" is hardly an exercise in simple nostalgia. Strains of darkness, pain and regret are visible through the comedy, and some of the societal/racial issues the film brings up have yet to be resolved. "A lot of images fade," Ben says at one point. "If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better." Barry Levinson, thankfully, has remembered enough for us all.

Liberty Heights, 1999. R for crude language and sex-related material. A Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production, distributed by Warner Bros. Director Barry Levinson. Producers Barry Levinson, Paula Weinstein. Executive producer Patrick McCormick. Writer Barry Levinson. Cinematographer Chris Doyle. Editor Stu Linder. Production designer Vincent Peranio. Music Andrea Morricone. Art director Alan E. Muraoka. Set decorator William A. Cimino. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. Adrien Brody as Van. Bebe Neuwirth as Ada. Joe Mantegna as Nate. Ben Foster as Ben. Orlando Jones as Little Melvin. Rebekah Johnson as Sylvia.

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