TWENTY YEARS LATER (almost), Baltimore's quirky dialect and neighborhoods have turned to nostalgia for Barry Levinson, who first took us there in 1982's wonderful Diner. His terrific ear for dialogue is undiminished, yet his trust in pure talk has slipped, resulting in a heartfelt, well-observed but ultimately schematic portrayal of one family's troubles, circa 1954. That family, the Kurtzmans, is specifically Jewish—as Levinson has proclaimed in The New York Times—owing to the writer/director's anger about what he deemed an anti-Semitic review of his 1998 film Sphere in Entertainment Weekly.
written and directed by Barry Levinson
opens December 22 at Meridian 16
Making movies to prove a point is always a bad idea. Here, Levinson celebrates a self-reliant, tough Judaism, insular, loving, and middle-class, misunderstood and often despised by "the other kind," with children baffled by this divide. Teenaged Ben (Ben Foster) has a crush on Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a black classmate, while his collegiate brother Van (Adrien Brody) falls for a WASP princess. Both are "dream girls," Levinson admits, exotic symbols of assimilation, and scandalous to their mother (Bebe Neuwirth), who protests, "Just kill me now!" Liberty's strongest character is the family patriarch Nate (Joe Mantegna), who runs a dying burlesque club—"No nipples!"—as a front for his illicit bookmaking operation.
Integration awaits, yet a "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds" sign prohibits Ben and his pals from swimming. One friend wonders, "How do they decide who comes first?" riffing on the exact order of undesirables. It's a classic Levinson moment, one of many in a film that still feels encumbered with heavy-handed plotting. Each of the Kurtzman kids' romances run into predictable obstacles, while their father's business woes eventually threaten the entire family. To his credit, Levinson doesn't meet false crisis with false resolution, and his characters remain just above melodrama and stereotype.
But the Kurtzmans can't escape the clumsy architecture of the script, no matter how good Levinson's details and dialogue. His respect for big cars, strip clubs, and bewildered teen love feels right for the time. Shorn of the affirmative identity lessons ("Jews are a minority, too" Ben declares), Levinson's sentimental evocation of a lost era could've succeeded nicely on its language alone. When Mantegna says "just lit-er-al-ly came in," it's got the Mamet rhythm. When Mantegna and his cronies debate what's wrong with silly foreign games like cricket or croquet, Levinson is the master of his home turf. And when he briefly returns his characters to the totemic Fell's Point Diner, you want them to stay—because nothing outside its booths is ever so good again.