Liberty Heights

1999, Movie, R, 132 mins


Writer-director Barry Levinson brings it all back home to Baltimore and delivers his funniest and most heartfelt film since DINER. It's 1954 and in the Jewish neighborhood of Forest Park, two generations of Kurtzman men are about to test the stringent lines of racial and religious segregation that crisscross Baltimore and the minds of its residents. Ben (Ben Foster), whose high school has just been desegregated, falls for Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the pretty new African-American girl in his homeroom. His brother Van (Adrien Brody) braves a Halloween party in the rich, WASPy part of town and falls in love with a patrician blonde named Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), even though a fellow party guest beats up Van's best friend Yussel (David Krumholtz) for being a Jew. Their father Nate (Joe Mantegna), who supplements the income from his dying burlesque house by running a numbers racket, is forced to do business with Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a black dope dealer; Melvin's bonus number hits and he's now entitled to $100,000 Nate doesn't have. If the maxim "write from what you know" has any filmmaking equivalent, Levinson is its exemplar. His very best films (DINER, TIN MEN) are his most personal, set in the city he knows so intimately; his worst — films like TOYS and SPHERE — find him far afield and foundering. This engaging effort is filled with the kind of warmth and idealism that only come with nostalgia, but like a Jewish JUNGLE FEVER, it has the guts to air — and then challenge — false assumptions based on racial and religious differences. It's fast-paced, full of color (cinematographer Christopher Doyle is constantly on the lookout for interesting angles, often opting for reflections) and centers around the quintessential Levinson scene: a group of good friends, sitting around kibbitzing. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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