Liberty Heights

Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring: Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Joe Mantegna, Orlando Jones, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson.
MPAA Rating: R for crude language and sex-related material.

Review by Matt Heffernan
December 13, 1999

Barry Levinson may have won his only Academy Award for directing Rain Main, but he is probably best known for his "Baltimore" films. Liberty Heights is the fourth film in the series (I guess we can't call it a "trilogy" anymore), which began in 1982 with Diner. Following that film were Tin Men and Avalon, each film being set in Baltimore during the 1950's and 60's. They stand apart from Levinson's other films (Bugsy, Wag the Dog, etc.) because of their warmth and inherent familiarity.

The subject of this film is the Kurtzman family, led by Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a burlesque hall. It's 1954, and television is killing the once-dominant form of entertainment. His real business is number running, but burlesque is quickly becoming a bad front business. His sons, Van (Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster), are oblivious to the situation, and instead are concerned with matters of the heart.

However, at that time, Jews in Baltimore were not in the best social position. This does not deter Ben from dating Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first black girl to go to his predominantly Jewish high school. Van is now in college, but getting the attention of a beautiful, blonde Christian girl (Carolyn Murphy) is no easier. Nate has even bigger trouble when a black drug dealer (Orlando Jones) hits the numbers for $100,000, and is not the patient kind.

Levinson (who also wrote the screenplay) pushes the issues of race and religion in this film more that his previous ones. He very carefully makes comparisons between the Jews and the African-Americans, without belittling the tribulations of either group. To do this with such warmth and humor is a tribute to his great talent as a filmmaker. The dialogue is extremely sharp, and he guides a group of mostly young actors, with little experience, through the material, creating a rich environment that plays beautifully on the screen.

The only real detraction from the film is a slow third act. The details of Nate's legal troubles threaten to suffocate the story of the younger characters. In this case, however, Levinson wrapped up Ben and Van's plot lines by the end of the second act, and they are in an extended epilogue for the rest of the film. The result is a running length that could lose about 25 minutes. Luckily, the atmosphere is well-maintained by a strong supporting cast, including Bebe Neuwirth as Nate's wife Ada.

Although this isn't one of the best films of the year, I could see Levinson getting nominated for his screenplay. Few films are so well written that the characters come to life as they do in Liberty Heights.

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Liberty Heights (1999)

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan