movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


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Liberty Heights
Barry Levinson returns to Baltimore for Liberty Heights, the city that has been the backdrop for his most personal films, including Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), and Avalon (1990). I was fortunate enough to see this film in its special engagement at the Senator Theater in Baltimore, a setting for Avalon and favorite hangout of John Waters.

Writer/director/producer Levinson says that this project was initiated by a critic who referred to a character in one of his films as "Jewish"--because he called home often. This remark struck Levinson as anti-Semitic, assuming that there is one set of Jewish behavior. This film set out to show the multiplicity within ethnic groups and to return to a time when American prejudices were firmly in place--the Baltimore of his youth, 1955.

Instead of showing the horror of racial prejudice through brutality and death--as in the recent Crazy in Alabama--Levinson takes the most difficult path of showing the humiliation and destruction from "mere" exclusion and disrespect. Early in the film, three friends visit a swimming pier, "No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed." "I wonder how they came up with that order," one remarks. Liberty Heights follows the awkward and treacherous interactions between the Jewish Kurtzman family and different circles of Baltimore whites and blacks.

The film focuses on the Kurtzman males: the father Nate (Joe Mategna); the older brother Van (Adrien Brody); and the younger brother Ben (Ben Foster). Ben is the central figure and narrator. Mother Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) explains early on that all non-Jews are "the other kind." While Nate and Van largely accept their liminal positions--not white, not black--Ben playfully tests their limits. Ben horrifies his parents by dressing as Adolf Hitler for Halloween (a figure that Jewish writer/director Mel Brooks would milk for belly laughs a decade later in The Producers). Ben seems to realize that the limits of his suburban Baltimore are ripe to be bent—and that bending may lead to eventual breakage.

Production designer Vincent Peranio brings bright '50s colors to Liberty Heights, more similar to the tones he used in John Waters' Cry-Baby (1990) than the washed-out sepia tones of Avalon and Tin Man or the shadows of Diner. The gleaming cars and vibrant hues present an upbeat world, whose inhabitants work to ignore the complications and injustices that are just under the surface.

Liberty Heights is neither sensational nor nostalgic, echoing the quiet, confident storytelling of Diner, rather than the preciousness of Avalon. Editor Stu Linder, a frequent Levinson collaborator, expertly cuts between the narratives of Ben, Van, and Nate. Nate is a charismatic man, who leaves Rosh Hashanah service each year to buy a new Cadillac. Frustrated by the prejudices against Jewish men of his generation, he operates a burlesque house to launder his income from a numbers racket--whose clients are largely black. Van is the first Kurtzman to attend college; a handsome, confident leader among his Jewish friends, he becomes awkward and winsomely submissive when surrounded by his rich white classmates. Meanwhile, Ben becomes fascinated by Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the daughter of a prominent black physician, who has been bused into his school.

Van's story is the most obvious and least interesting. He is lured by the glitter of Trey and Dubbie, played to icy perfection by fashion models Justin Chambers and Carolyn Murphy. Van and his friend Yussel (David Krumholtz) are doomed outsiders, noting with disdain the "old" furniture and lack of wall-to-wall carpeting in Trey's house. Yussel goes from belligerent at one party, to dying his hair blonde to pass at another. Beneath their beauty and money, Trey and Dubbie are "poor little rich kids," with secret torments. Only the earnest, intelligent sweetness that Adrien Brody brings to Van makes this sequence at all compelling.

Ben’s fascination with the intense yet poised Sylvia expands to his fascination with the black comics and musicians that she introduces him to. Levinson skillfully plays with the cross of race and class here: Sylvia will be the 3rd generation of her family to attend Spellman College; Ben and Van are the first generation of Kurtzmans to attend college. Sylvia’s father can disapprove of Ben on three grounds: race, religion, and class. But Ben retains his poise when the stern man drives him home, refusing to leave the car until Sinatra finishes his song on the radio: "It would be rude to walk out on him," he says. Ben has a steady compass about what matters.

Ben’s story is contrasted with his father’s situation when a black drug pusher, Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), wins a bet that Nate can’t pay off; however, Nate uses his confidence to manipulate the gullible Melvin. When Melvin sees Nate’s lime green Cadillac outside a James Brown concert, he kidnaps Ben and Sylvia—who both resist his petty intimidations while waiting for Nate’s ransom. What is fascinating in this scene is not only the contrast of cultures and generations but how Ben and Sylvia continually refuse to be defined by their cultural conventions—without going to Yussel’s extreme and denying their culture.

All three Kurtzmans are deeply affected by their very different cross-cultural experiences. As close a family as they are, they manage to present separate versions of Jewishness and intersect with widely different versions of "the other kind." Ben is the only one in control during his maneuvers among the other kind. When his friends tear down the offensive sign and enter the forbidden swimming pier, the white enclave is merely bemused. Ben somehow knew to take down the sign at precisely the moment that it had become obsolete.

Liberty Heights' strength lies in its avoidance of high dramatic moments in favor of quiet honesty, demanding respect equally for Sinatra on the radio as well as a Jewish boy’s right to talk to a Gentile girl. The cast is uniformly strong—it is a special pleasure to see Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mategna shine together. I look forward to seeing the younger actors again.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]