Friday, February 4, 2000

Through the past, smartly

Movie: Liberty Heights

Posted on Fri, Feb 4, 2000 at 4:00 AM

***1/2
Our Rating: 3.50

Obviously reeling from the commercial and critical failure of his sci-fi bomb "Sphere," director Barry Levinson returns to what he does best in the nostalgic "Liberty Heights." Blending together the familial bonds of "Avalon," the inane table talk of "Diner" and the comedic thrust of "Tin Men," Levinson revisits familiar haunts while also offering up his first true coming-of-age piece.

Named for a predominantly Jewish Baltimore neighborhood, "Liberty Heights" addresses a time in this country's history -- 1954, to be exact -- when being Jewish was unacceptable and disturbing to many Americans. The teen-aged Ben (Ben Foster) discovers the harsh reality early on when he reads a sign at a neighboring country club: "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed."

The problem is compounded when Ben falls for Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), an African-American girl in his class, only to learn that her family is just as prejudiced against him because of the color of his own skin. Ben's older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), is a college student who is also learning about social inequality while attempting to break down class barriers. In pursuing the girl of his dreams, a blond debutante named Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), whom he meets at a party, Van finds that his Jewishness is primarily a novelty to the spoiled rich girl.

Mom (Bebe Neuwirth) and Dad (Joe Mantegna) have their fair share of problems as well, but most of them stem from Dad's unspoken business. As the proprietor of the slowly fading Gayety burlesque house, he keeps the family in its comfortable middle-class surroundings by running a numbers racket.

Things take a disastrous turn when shady drug dealer Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) scores big on the numbers. Dad doesn't have the money to pay off the winner's earnings, and so the whole family's safety is put into jeopardy. The film's sentimental tone doesn't allow for a full, realistic exploration of the threat Little Melvin poses to the family. But viewing its core issues through the eyes of two teen-age boys does provide "Liberty Heights" with true heart. Ben and Van refuse to let their society's racial prejudices stand in their way, soundly revealing the brothers to be patently and inherently ridiculous.

Foster and Brody both deliver strong, funny and sensitive performances, and Levinson has worked their characters out thoroughly. Unfortunately, he dwells on them a little too long, dragging out the tale into a few more climaxes than even a superb cast, a witty script and gorgeous cinematography can support. Toward the end of the film, Mantegna's character preaches, "A good performer knows when to get off stage." A good director should know when to wrap things up, as well.

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