Liberty Heights (1999)

Ben Foster and Adrien BrodyStarring: Joe Mantegna, Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Orlando Jones, Rebekah Johnson, Richard Kline, Bebe Neuwirth, Carolyn Murphy, Justin Chambers, Frania Rubinek.
Written by: Barry Levinson.
Music by: Andrea Morricone (score).
Cinematography by: Christopher Doyle.
Directed by: Barry Levinson.

Grade: B-

Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry.

Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods--130 is the popularly disseminated number. Even in our time of the "Global Village," the neighborhoods in Baltimore retain their distinct characters. Those divisions make the city an ideal setting for stories about boundaries and barriers. It's no coincidence that both the famous filmmakers Charm City has produced, Barry Levinson and John Waters, have explored those issues--albeit in vastly different ways.

The racial divide that Waters made a central theme of in Hairspray, more realistically, if less dramatically, appears in Liberty Heights, through the narrator Ben's (Ben Foster) relationship with a refined Black girl, Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). The rarefied wealthy that restrained Amy Locane's perky Alison in Cry Baby resurface as objects of desire for Ben's older brother Van (Adrien Brody) and his friends in Liberty Heights. The strictly segregated--by class, race, and religion--realms of Baltimore society in the '50s and '60s provide instant conflict for the homegrown Waters and Levinson, and help them comment on the larger issues of the invisible barriers that divide us in the real world.

Ben and Van's family, the Kurtzmans, are middle-class Jews, well-off enough for their father Nate (Joe Mantegna) to buy a new Cadillac every Rosh Hashanah. Nate makes his living running a burlesque house on The Block, Baltimore's red-light district, and by controlling a chunk of the city's numbers trade. Despite these shady dealings, Nate comes across as a straightforward business and family man who takes a break from the strippers every evening to go home and have dinner with his wife (Bebe Neuwirth), his mother (Frania Rubinek), and his two sons. Nate's smooth operation gets bumpy when a small-time Black pot dealer named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) bets big and wins big, bigger than Nate can afford to pay out. Ben Foster and Rebekah Johnson

Meanwhile, Ben, a high-school senior, has discovered the benefits of school integration, and becomes smitten with the beautiful Sylvia. In the sort of circumstance we rarely see in the movies--though was far more common than most people realize, especially in places like Baltimore--Sylvia's African-American family is better educated, wealthier, and has more social standing within its circle than Ben's family. Despite her doctor-father's strict prohibitions, Sylvia and Ben form a close bond. She opens him up to Black culture, capping it off by taking him to see James Brown in his days of touring the "Chitlin Circuit" before he'd ever cut a record or become the "Godfather of Soul."

Van is crossing his own divide--Falls Road, to be exact, the boundary between the rich goyim and everyone else. Attending a Halloween party he was invited to by a university friend, Van meets the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman of his dreams (Carolyn Murphy). Van and his friends are torn between fighting against and assimilating with a world that excludes them.

The mother and grandmother have little to do with the story beyond exclaiming over every non-Jewish name and un-Jewish act they encounter. It's a shame, especially for the exquisitely talented Neuwirth, who, despite looking way foxier and more glamorous than June Cleaver could on her wickedest bad-girl day, is still pretty much the standard '50s housewife. Joe Mantegna

Liberty Heights conjures the discrete and disparate worlds of Baltimore in the '50s with aplomb. The art direction is wonderful, thanks partly to the city where the film is set. There is no shortage of vintage locations in Baltimore and locals will delight in spotting such bastions of civic pride as the Club Charles (transformed into the Sphinx Lounge, Little Melvin's headquarters) and, of course, Levinson's much-beloved diner. The soundtrack makes stellar use of old, original rock and roll and rhythm and blues tunes, as well as a few Tom Waits numbers that lend a trademark moodiness to the proceedings they underscore.

Unfortunately, the film never goes very deep, despite the weighty issues it addresses. It misses the emotional impact of family or friendship that made Avalon and Diner successful. Though it has the nostalgia and the snappy dialogue of those movies, it never packs the same punch. The story of Ben and Sylvia never takes on the resonance of the similar situation in A Bronx Tale, for example, and Van's story line withers and dies after a weak and confusing climax.

Liberty Heights feels too much like the mellow remembrances of a middle-aged man looking at his youth through rose-tinted glasses, and too little like the passionate story of a young man coming up against the strictures of a segmented society. Though it has plenty of wonderful moments, and the cast, notably Adrien Brody and Orlando Jones, is terrific, the film is emotionally unsatisfying. It's sweet and it's pretty, but it doesn't do justice to the characters, their struggles, or the city they inhabit.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999
Warner Bros.

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