Life beyond the barmitzvah

Liberty Heights (15) | Director: Barry Levinson | Starring: Ben Foster, Adrien Brody, Rebekah Johnson, Carolyn Murphy | 127 Mins
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The Independent Culture

The good news about the latest Barry Levinson movie is that it returns him to Baltimore, the place of his birth and the setting of his finest work, Diner (1982) and Tin Men (1987). Levinson has made his reputation in Hollywood on big-name crowd pleasers - Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Sleepers - gilded corn that flattened his individual touch and made one wonder if he wasn't just a smart journeyman with a sentimental instinct. Liberty Heights is a heartening affirmation not only of Levinson's gifts as a humorist but as a social chronicler of tremendous grace and affection.

The good news about the latest Barry Levinson movie is that it returns him to Baltimore, the place of his birth and the setting of his finest work, Diner (1982) and Tin Men (1987). Levinson has made his reputation in Hollywood on big-name crowd pleasers - Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, Sleepers - gilded corn that flattened his individual touch and made one wonder if he wasn't just a smart journeyman with a sentimental instinct. Liberty Heights is a heartening affirmation not only of Levinson's gifts as a humorist but as a social chronicler of tremendous grace and affection.

His story covers the years 1954-55, a period of transition in American society and one of particular significance to Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster), a middle-class Jewish kid in Baltimore who's just become curious about cars and girls. The former is relatively straightforward: his dad allows him the keys to his "mist green" Cadillac with only the smallest proviso about not being late home. The latter, however, causes all kinds of head-shaking and lip-pursing: he's become friendly with Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a serenely self-possessed black girl who's in his class by dint of the new desegregation orders from the Supreme Court.

Ben catches her tram, working on the assumption that Sylvia's going "downtown", whereas she's actually from an affluent suburb; she also knows stuff about music and comedy that Ben's never heard of. Oh, and she's heart-breakingly beautiful.

However, Ben isn't the only one straying beyond the safe Jewish confines of Liberty Heights. His older brother Van (Adrien Brody) has fallen for a haughty blueblood shiksa named Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy) who likes riding horses and chugging Scotch straight from the bottle.

The Kurtzman brothers experience the thrill of trespass over the borders of religion ("No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds" reads the sign outside the local pool) and of class; when Van is invited into a Wasp friend's baronial house he looks suitably overwhelmed by the antique furniture and Persian rugs - not so his combative friend Yussel (David Krumholtz), who snaps, "They haven't bought anything new here since 1906".

Levinson is very astute in dramatising the conflicted nature of Jewishness, both in Yussel (who later dyes his hair blond to look more gentile) and in Ben, who goes straight for the jugular of tact by dressing up as Hitler for a Hallowe'en party. It prompts his mother (the great Bebe Neuwirth) to deliver perhaps the most unimpeachable you're-not-going-out-dressed-like-that prohibition ever heard in cinema.

The movie is about changing times, and American society's first faltering steps towards racial and sexual liberation, yet Levinson never gets preachy or self-righteous about this struggle out of the Dark Ages. He has entered so deeply into the period that one happily surrenders to its illusion of authenticity; the Australian cinematographer Chris Doyle burnishes the images until they glow like stills from Life magazine. Everything from the chrome on the Cadillacs to the drape of the suits feels lovingly reproduced, and Levinson's emotional confidence in his home turf is rock-solid.

The temptation would have been to sentimentalise the characters, but he instead renders them humanly, interestingly flawed: Ben's father, Nate (Joe Mantegna) has been running a numbers racket out of a sleazy burlesque house and gets in deep when a small-time drug dealer, Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits the jackpot, leaving Nate unable to pay on the bet. The tension it causes at home at least allows the boys to raise the question of what their father actually does for a living.

Nate and his partners try to fob off the winner with a long-term settlement, but Little Melvin isn't having it, and gets his chance to exact payment when Ben unwittingly presents himself as kidnap victim. (He has left his dad's Cadillac parked outside a James Brown concert in an all-black neighbourhood). The confrontation allows Ben to point out that his ancestors, like Little Melvin's, were once slaves - the Jews were forced to build the pyramids - but it's a kinship that leaves his kidnapper unimpressed.

The negotiations which ensue between Nate and the drug dealer highlight the one bit of characterisation that doesn't feel right: when Little Melvin gets his shot at the big time, we later hear that his truculence and unwillingness to give and take have fatally undermined his stock in the underworld. Nate is summoned to bail him out, and cuts a deal so crushing to Little Melvin that one can't miss the note of condescension in the script - the black man has been taught a humiliating lesson by the smart Jew.

The only other problem is one of pace; it sags noticeably in the last quarter, perhaps because it hasn't one really strong chord to finish on. "A good performer knows when to get off the stage", says Nate, but Levinson hesitates just a fraction too long in winding up his story. Let's be clear, though: Liberty Heights is a choice cut of wistful tenderness, beautifully scripted and played to a nuanced T by the cast.

Special mention should go to Adrien Brody as Van, who finds that answered prayers aren't always a good thing, and to newcomer Ben Foster, a whippet-lean kid whose obstinacy and enthusiasm anticipate the wilful romantics of Diner at the end of the Fifties.

This is a boy who refuses to leave a car while Sinatra is playing on the radio, because to turn his back on Frank would be "disrespectful". Whatever else life holds for him, one gets the sense that Ben would be doing it His Way.

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