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Unlike Paris, London, and New York—metropolises that have inspired filmmakers since the medium’s birth—Baltimore is a fickle muse. Charm City’s fabled enticements—crab cakes, big hair, and the Block—may be sufficient to launch directorial careers, but apparently are not substantial enough to sustain them. Consider the trajectory of Baltimorean John Waters’ work, the long, slow decline from his 1972 raunch masterpiece, Pink Flamingos, to last year’s Pecker. Liberty Heights, the fourth Bawlmer-based feature by the city’s other notable native-son filmmaker, writer-director Barry Levinson, turns out to be another example of hometown overkill.
To be fair, Liberty Heights, like Levinson’s previous Baltimore pictures, is superior to his bungled out-of-town projects, which include Toys, Disclosure, Sleepers, and Sphere. In 1982, at age 40, Levinson made his late-blooming directorial debut with Diner, a casual, atmospheric late-’50s slice-of-life comedy-drama showcasing a cast of fresh young actors including Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, and Paul Reiser. More contrived, but still enjoyable, Tin Men (1987), set a half-decade later, featured Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as aluminum-siding salesmen at the ends of their tethers. With Installment 3, 1990’s Avalon, a lavishly produced, multigenerational immigrant-family chronicle, Levinson turned maudlin, drenching his material in a shower of earnest sentimentality. In Liberty Heights, the filmmaker wisely retreats to the more modest scale of Diner, but with a larger sense of historical mission—which he fails to achieve.
Levinson’s screenplay examines a pivotal period of mid-’50s social and cultural ferment from the perspective of the semi-autobiographical Kurtzman family, residents of the titular middle-class Jewish enclave. Nate (Joe Mantegna), the father, supplements the waning profits of his failing downtown burlesque theater by running a neighborhood numbers racket. His elder son, Van (Adrien Brody), a college student, crashes a cross-town gentile Halloween party where he falls for a rich blond princess. Ben (Ben Foster) parallels his older brother’s barrier-leaping with his own attraction to Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first black student in his newly integrated high school class.
Like Baltimore novelist-laureate Anne Tyler’s evasive fiction, Liberty Heights fiddles with an assortment of serious themes but never fully engages them. It plays like a Disney World replication of 1954 urban America, with the ugly bits expunged to protect the kiddies. Through Levinson’s rose-colored lens, racial, religious, and class conflicts are blithely resolved with a touch of compassion and tolerance. When small-time drug dealer Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) makes a numbers win that Nate can’t afford to pay off, a potentially lethal situation is diffused by some cards-on-the-table reasoning. Van is accepted by upper-crust WASP society with barely a whisper of anti-Semitism. Parental objections and other restraints serve only to intensify Ben and Sylvia’s chaste but ardent relationship.
Although Levinson’s evident goal is to expose the insularity that leads to prejudice, he inadvertently reinforces a number of stereotypes. Trey and Dubbie, the major gentile characters, are caricatures of goyim: blond, beautiful, alcoholic spawns of broken aristocratic families (respectively played by fashion models Justin Chambers and Carolyn Murphy). These Aryan cliches—the affectless Dubbie arrives at a party astride a thoroughbred horse!—betray the filmmaker’s narrow conception of Christian bluebloods. In Levinson’s world, blacks come in two varieties: high-principled, hard-driven strivers (Sylvia’s strict, wealthy physician-father) and menacing, slow-witted street hustlers (Little Melvin and his cronies). Even the Jewish characters fail to escape stereotyping. The Kurtzman women, mother Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) and grandmother Rose (Frania Rubinek), are allowed no other functions besides housekeeping and worrying.
Significantly, the only characters who transcend cliche are the filmmaker’s counterparts, the Jewish males. Nate is depicted with some complexity; despite his shady business practices, he’s a devoted husband and supportive father. Van overcomes his gentile-phobic upbringing—non-Jews are customarily referred to as “the Other Kind”—in his pursuit of Dubbie and his friendship with Trey. Ben not only demonstrates a defiance of racism in his pursuit of Sylvia but displays a transgressive sense of humor (to the horror of his parents, he dresses as Hitler for Halloween) and an aesthetic curiosity, embracing the music of James Brown and other black artists.
The members of Levinson’s acting ensemble, notably the younger players, work hard to enliven their largely one-dimensional roles: Brody, with his affable, Jokerlike grin; earnest, wide-eyed Foster; and lovely ingenue Johnson. Mantegna gives a solid, if unsurprising, performance, but fourth-billed Neuwirth is allowed surprisingly scanty screen time for an actress of her stature, relegated to producing meals and fretting about her menfolk. One can’t avoid speculating that much of her performance has been excised—a theory consistent with the film’s patchy continuity. Constantly juggling at least three plots, Levinson and editor Stu Linder achieve speed at the expense of depth, presenting their narrative as a relentless mosaic of vignettes, most of which feel prematurely truncated.
Although it doesn’t add up to much, Liberty Heights, like Tyler’s novels, affords some modest pleasures. Production designer Vincent Peranio, a veteran of four John Waters movies, re-creates a credible 1954 Baltimore. Andrea Morricone’s record-laden soundtrack reflects cultural shifts in the era’s pop music, juxtaposing hits by mainstream white singers (Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Perry Como, Jo Stafford) with breakthrough recordings by rock ‘n’ roll and R&B performers (Elvis, Bill Haley and the Comets, Ray Charles, the Midnighters, Carl Perkins).
Early in the film, Ben and his neighborhood buddies stand outside a fenced-in country club swimming pool posted with the sign “No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed.” Although I could be mistaken, this posting strikes me as the filmmaker’s exaggerated invention. In the ’50s, restrictive clubs had evolved far subtler means of excluding undesirables, and the outrageous positioning of blacks beneath canines is unlikely to have appeared on a public notice. In an equally specious closing scene, the boys defiantly and triumphantly invade the same pool without experiencing a trace of resistance. If prejudice is so easy to overcome, why does it remain so pervasive, even in Baltimore?
Levinson stuffs his film with such period details as vintage cars, Sid Caesar kinescopes, public-school bomb drills, Death of a Salesman, and the cha-cha, while soft-pedaling the era’s social and political inequities as well as the bitterness they inspire. The movie left me with the uneasy feeling that Levinson is unwittingly nostalgic for the stratified society that unquestioningly viewed gentiles, blacks, and Jewish women as shallowly as he does in his latest cinematic homecoming. CP