Directed by Eric Mendelsohn
Review by Matt Heffernan
I can't remember which one is more prestigious, but the Sundance Film Festival has two awards for directors: The Filmmakers Trophy and The Director's Award. Eric Mendelsohn won the latter award for Judy Berlin last year, and Gavin O'Connor won the former for Tumbleweeds. I should hope that O'Connor got the higher honor, because his film was certainly much better.
In the town of Babylon, on Long Island, aspiring actress Judy Berlin (Edie Falco, star of "The Sopranos") is getting ready for her big trip out to California. Her mother, Sue (Barbara Barrie), is a teacher at the local elementary school. The principal there is Art Gold (Bob Dishy), husband of Alice (Madeline Kahn) and father to David (Aaron Harnick). On this day, there is going to be a solar eclipse, and Sue prepares her class to observe it.
Meanwhile, David is wandering around his hometown, having returned from California without achieving success as a film director. He meets up with Judy, whom he went to school with, and they spend the day together. The eclipse doesn't seem to end, and the whole town has been in darkness since 1:00 in the afternoon. This causes Alice to drift even farther from lucidity, and Art finds himself drawn to Sue.
I would like to say that I could avoid spoilers in this review, but since nothing happens, it would be impossible to write any. Some relationships are introduced, there are some interesting and funny scenes, but there is no payoff. Judy Berlin is slice-of-life to the extreme, with no real plot or character development. The only thing that makes the film tolerable is Mendelsohn's screenplay, which makes pointed references to the static nature of the story. Sure, I found it amusing, but what was the purpose?
What it comes down to are the performances. Fans of "The Sopranos" will find it refreshing to see Falco playing such a different character -- one much closer to her actual age. She does a fine job portraying a little girl who doesn't want to grow up, or even feels she needs to. An interesting casting choice is Harnick, who is an actual director (30 Days) and Barrie's son. Also, this is the last film performance for Kahn, who passed away in December. She was so wonderful, but it's a shame that she ended her career with mediocre material like this film and the new "Cosby" show.
I know this was a very inexpensive film to make, and a certain degree of experimentation doesn't hurt. It's shot in black and white, which at least makes it look like an art film. At the theatre I saw it at, it certainly sounded like an art film. The quality of the soundtrack was so poor, it was like listening to it on a noisy cellular phone. Hopefully, other prints have better soundtracks on them, but do beware. The film isn't worth sitting through 90 minutes of hisses and pops.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Judy Berlin (1999)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan