If more people followed Barry Levinson’s example and made art after taking issue with something I’ve written, Hollywood and my mailbox would both benefit. In recent interviews, the director has said his new film, Liberty Heights, emerged out of anger at comments he interpreted as anti-Semitic in my review of his Sphere almost two years ago: I identified Dustin Hoffman’s character as a Jewish psychologist, observing that he was ”noodgey and menschlike.” I also called Sphere a ”matzo ball,” and in this I was mistaken: Upon second viewing, I now realize it’s an overstuffed kreplach, and Levinson understandably had difficulty swallowing its box office failure.
Levinson was also uncomfortable, I think, that I called a character whose every mannerism is pop-cultural shorthand for Jewish a Jew. Why, he asked, couldn’t I say the shrink was just a…guy? In response, why, I ask, can’t the shrink also be known as a Jew? In any event, I (with my own identifying Jewish surname, omitted in the reportage) unlocked in Levinson a desire, a need to revisit and explain his own roots in a manner more direct and less cute than in Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon, his previous Baltimore-based, autobiographically anchored films.
In Liberty Heights, Barry Levinson calls a Jew a Jew. And with the freedom borne of that unveiling, he flushes a whole lot of schmaltz out of his arteries.
The movie is set in Baltimore’s Jewish quarter in 1954, when an American kid safe from Europe’s still-recent Holocaust might think the whole world was Jewish—until he set foot out of his neighborhood, where the sign at a country club read ”No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed.” Thus, as Ben Kurtzman (Freaks and Geeks’ Ben Foster) and his older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), venture away from the traditional table set by their mother (Bebe Neuwirth) and their burlesque-operating, numbers-running father (Joe Mantegna), they taste the possibilities of ”otherness.”
Levinson’s storytelling here relies heavily on stereotype, but quickly established and resolved dramatic conflicts are, I suppose, useful in making untroublesome, incontrovertible points about changing times in modern America. (Even the most trite scenes of us-versus-them tension benefit from the strikingly expressive cinematography of Chris Doyle.) Van is smitten by a blond, gentile princess (Carolyn Murphy) who turns out to be a messed-up gentile drinker; Ben, befriending the one black girl (Rebekah Johnson) bused in to his newly integrated school, discovers not only that some blacks are affluent and well educated, but that James Brown is cool; and Dad—no dummy—gets a whiff that burlesque is on the way out.
In other words, the transformational moments (as a menschlike psychologist might say) experienced by these liberty-seeking Jews are about as subtle as Mandy Patinkin’s renditions of Yiddish songs heard in the background. But Levinson’s passion to explain how he got from there to Sphere gives Liberty Heights its own farkatke Hollywood integrity. Mazel tov. B-