by Greg Muskewitz
The subject of Jewish family dysfunction is that of a worn one. The master of the shtick itself Woody Allen is not able himself to keep the genre going, with the amount of embarrassing failures of such that he's served us as of late. And here, Barry Levinson lays on the schmaltz.Apparently, the motivation that writer/director Barry Levinson got for this unscathingly simpleminded comedy came from an anti-Semitic review to his last feature, "Sphere." Levinson has proven himself a very capable director in the past with such masterful pieces as "Rain Man" and "Avalon," but with the lack of fluidity that he contrives this story out of, he's only setting himself up for backlash, or at least harsher criticism on the Jewishness of it.
"The usual on screen Jewish kibosh."
"Liberty Heights" is a tresfold, unfolding with the stories of, in order of most interesting to least, Ben (Ben Foster), a young high school student; his father Nate (Joe Mantegna), who on the outside runs a burlesque act (how kosher is that?), but on the inside runs numbers. Last and least is Van (Adrien Brody), the oldest son who spends the majority of the movie searching for a girl who was dressed up as Cinderella at a costume party (a party not nearly exciting as a certain Masked Ball that our "Eyes" were treated to this year).
Ben's story is by far the most interesting, engaging, and linear story of all. It is was starts the movie, gives it its initial push off, and is always there when the rest needs some cushion and padding. He is part of a Jewish family, the second and last child, and one prone to a certain degree of mischief. Ben goes to school, hangs out with friends, and gets in trouble (for Halloween he dresses up as Hitler, as his parents nearly pass out). It's the 1950s, and set in Levinson's hometown, or at least town of interest, Baltimore. (For movies far more interesting set in Baltimore, see John Waters.) So everything has a peachy-keen feels to it, and laid on so much thicker than the intentional coat of that in "Pleasantville." But his biggest contribution to the plot is his attraction to Sylvia (the cute Rebekah Johnson), an African-American fellow student. Ben pursues her in a non-sexual way (though he does have a pre-ejaculation when she grabs his leg to reach over him and grab a record), as both confront typical stereotypes of each's beliefs ("Does your father know Cab Calloway?" "No, does yours know Albert Einstein?" "No, but we know some other Steins!"). She introduces him to black culture, mostly through the music of Arethra Franklin or James Brown, and until the intervention of her father does the friendly relationship become less prominent.
Nate and his burlesque crew run into trouble when they offer a special bonus on one of the numbers they were running, and Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a small time drug dealer, bets an unusual amount and wins. That provides them with a tough situation, and a lot of meandering pointless plot additions.
And then of course is Van who falls in love with a nameless girl he flirted with at a party. He tries to search her out, and ends up requesting help from aristocratic and YUPPIEish Trey (Justin Chambers). It turns out to be his girl, Dubbie (Carolyn Murphey) that Van is in search of, so Trey plays it for fun for a while, but later on upon getting in a car accident, gives them his consent to get together (like they really needed it anyway!).
It felt as if Levinson tacked on the additional two storylines just to get a full-length film, as if Ben's couldn't sustain long enough on its own. As it ended up, the film went on much to long (135 minutes), stretching and grasping at every last minute. If Levinson would have strictly gone with Ben, there was plenty of ideas that could have been used to fill the screen time with interest, and yet still end up with a fair running time of 90 minutes instead. With the three tales, it was like an assembly and butchering of several different films of several different genres. "Liberty Heights" was left feeling very unbalanced. And even as much as Ben and Sylvia's storyline worked, it was plagued by the familiarity of Chazz Palminteri's directorial debut, "A Bronx Tale" (1994) in which the same themes were analyzed with the exception that "Tale" went a lot deeper into the examination.
A lot of the kibosh that took place during the film felt very scripted and very 90s modernized. You can only pull off the same gimmicks in so many movies before it is just as worn as old Vaudeville acts, but without the nostalgia that it brings back.
The majority of the performances were well done, although several in the position of offensive characteristics due to stereotypes. If Levinson's goal was to be iconoclastic, he reverse discriminated against himself with some of his Jewish characters as well as the black characters of Little Melvin and his co-hort Scribbles (Anthony Anderson). Bebe Neuwirth who starred as Nate's wife Ada, had the very distinct look of a Jewish housewife from the 1950s (though she had very black hair as opposed to the traditional blonde wigs of the time) and rivaled Joan Allen as mother of the 50s in image, but her dialogue was very 90s. She instead played a 1950s-looking mother, with a very 1990s modernization and attitude. Levinson's screenplay just lumbered, and the neurosis became very old very fast.Final Verdict: C-
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=3421&reviewer=172
originally posted: 12/19/99 17:06:57