Liberty Heights (1999) *** 1/2
Written and directed by Barry Levinson. Photography, Chris Doyle. Editing, Stu Linder. Production design, Vincent Peranio. Art direction, Alan E. Muraoka. Set decoration, William A. Cimino. Music, Andrea Morricone. Cast: Adrien Brody (Van Kurtzman), Bebe Neuwirth (the mother, Ada Kurtzman), Joe Mantegna (the father, Nate Kurtzman), Ben Foster (Ben Kurtzman), Orlando Jones (Little Melvin), Rebekah Johnson (Sylvia), David Krumholtz (Yussel), Richard Kline (Charlie), Vincent Guastaferro (Pete), Justin Chambers (Trey), Carolyn Murphy (Dubbie), Frania Rubinek (the Kurtzman's grandmother) James Pickens Jr ( Sylvias's father), et al. Produced by Levinson and Paula Weinstein. Released by Warners .134 minutes. R (language and suggestions of sex, neither too strong).
Never been to Baltimore. What I know about it comes from a sampling of TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street" (Barry Levinson was one of the executive producers as well as the director of some episodes), and mainly from Levinson's movies "Diner," "Tin Men," "Avalon" and now "Liberty Heights." But the shot of Baltimore that has stayed with me was in Hitchcock's "Marnie." When the kleptomaniac woman visits her mother, we get a sight of ships at the end of the street, a barefaced phony image (rear projection or whatever) of the kind the Master sometimes used to thumb his nose at us.
There are no such reality-defying tricks in "Liberty Heights," where Levinson blends both memories and imagination. Nor is the film a piece of nostalgia. If anything, it is a effort, and a most successful one at that, to evoke a certain time (1945-46), its Baltimore Jews, Gentiles and Blacks, anti-Semitism, racism , ethnic and class distinctions , and slowly changing attitudes. It's a big order, yet the movie may seem deceptively simple.
The film goes in several directions, all integrated somewhat in the manner of a "bildungsroman," a novel about growth. What does the trick is not only Levinson's talent but his strong familiarity with the subjects, his big-hearted approach and, within his seriousness, a sense of humor. He forsakes both broad comedy and mushiness.
The story centers on a middle-class family in a mostly Jewish suburb. Mom is sweet and traditional. Dad owns a burlesque house that by then was a vanishing institution. He supplements his income with the numbers racket. Younger son Ben is in high school, older son Van in college. There are major changes in the nation. TV is making its mark. Rock'n roll is in. More importantly, schools have just been desegregated.
In Ben's class there is now Sylvia, a charming black girl who must be the first Negro (in the parlance of the times) that Ben has ever noticed in an era when this big minority was of invisible men and women. Ben may have seen Claude Rains in a rerun of "The Invisible Man" movie, but he certainly had not read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" of 1952. He immediately feels drawn to Sylvia. And he tells his mother that he finds her attractive. Mom's reaction "Kill me now!" is funny, pathetic and most revealing.
The two youngsters make friends. The daughter of a wealthy surgeon, Sylvia lives in a beautiful home. She borrows her mother's car to drive Ben around, but he must crouch down. Interesting how he has to become temporarily an invisible man.
The relationship betwen the two is chaste. In her room Sylvia initiates Ben to recordings of black performers. It's a revelation. But this comes to an end when her father the doctor catches them. Forcefully but calmly he makes plain that his child is not allowed to frequent white boys. The sequence is a small gem of acting, reactions, revealing black attitudes, and turning the tables on whites.
(Later, there is another revelation for Ben, when, with one of his best buddies, he goes to most skillfully reconstructed rock 'n roll concert by James Brown. The boys are the only whites in the crowd, and they become just as delirious as the public).
In the meantime, when senior brother Van and pals go to an all-Gentile Halloween party, they run into anti-Semitism that culminates in pugilism. Van also runs into blonde, high society goddess Dubbie. He is smitten as never before.
Levinson has directed his young men with acute realism and a reining in of theatrics. The brothers have very strong feelings but keep them well-controlled. It is even more notable in the case of Van. Actor Adrien Brody bears a strong resemblance to the late French actor Charles Denner ( "Z," "The Two of Us," "Landru," "The Man Who Loved Women"). Both performers are good at pent-up emotions, but Brody never explodes.
The film is one of taboos that were just beginning to go away -- and have not yet entirely vanished. It reminds one of the days of Civil Rights struggles and may make you feel sad that the then-alliance of blacks and Jews later came to an end. But that's a subtext of the movie. Its open text, while true to life, is steadily respectful of minorities. The Jews, for example, never refer to the blacks as "schwartze." They don't badmouth them, even when the plot adds its third element, beyond the Ben-Sylvia and Van -Dubbie twosomes.
That element is the boys' father, Nate, a man who apparently buys a new Cadillac every Jewish New Year. Circumstances I will not describe lead him to a heavy, ruinous debt toward Little Melvin, a black hustler, subsequently to an odd partnership and later yet to some thrills. As Nate, Italian-American Joe Mantegna would, on paper, make an unlikely Jew, but it is not the case. Casting him may well be a sly political way towards integrating ethnicities. "Liberty Heights" depicts it locales, times and segments of society with first-class cinematography, sets, costumes, atmosphere, period music and the rest. If there are any anachronisms, they are minor. Its touch is light but not superficial. Its people, young and older, speak and act in genuine 50s fashion. The tempo is a good balance between fast and leisurely sections. And the film's length is justified by an abundance of very good touches.