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IN SHORT: A nice film. [Rated [R], 130 minutes]
Liberty Heights is the fourth film in Barry Levinson continuing series of "personal" films set in 1950s Baltimore. Like Diner, Tin Men and Avalon before it, Liberty Heights blends portions of Levinson's real life with situations from his gifted imagination. Diner may be the best known but Avalon is my personal favorite. Liberty Heights touches on the best parts of all three.
Somewhere in a storage box Cranky has got an old photograph album with pictures of a cousin's bar mitzvah, circa 1953 or 1954. That picture looks remarkably like the family within and the setting of writer/director Liberty Heights -- in terms of what (my New York based) Jewish family looked like, in comparison with Levinson's Baltimore based Jewish family that is at the center of this flick. My cousin is long dead, as is the Jewish family unit of the 1950s, which makes watching Liberty Heights like looking at the Moon. It is both incredibly familiar and incredibly distant.
Grandmother Rose (Frania Rubinek), parents Ada and Nate Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mantegna) and to their children Van (Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster) are a tight knit family in a tight knit community of Liberty Heights, a section of Baltimore. In this world, as Ada puts it, people are either Jews or "The Other Kind." The Kurtzman's are not especially rich. Nate owns a burlesk hall but makes his real money running a numbers racket. He can sense that his time is running out and, in trying to generate more income, offers a "bonus number" in his illegal lotto. Problem is, a lowlife reefer dealer called Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) hits the number, big. Nate can't cover.
As for the kidlets, a thrilling night out means crashing a WASP party on the other side of town. At one such Halloween party, Van sees and is struck by what we call a "shiksa Goddess," the very blonde and very beautiful Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy). The girl does nothing to discourage his attention since her boyfriend Trey (Justin Chambers) is a drunkard and a lout. Through circumstances you'll have to discover for yourself, Trey befriends -- honestly befriends -- Van.
With Integration laws working their way through the System, Ben is struck by the new girl in homeroom, Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the daughter of a prominent doctor. A prominent Negro doctor. His pursuit of her friendship, and neither one of 'em has any illusion of anything more than that, leads to rock and roll and a James Brown concert. After that, things get dramatic.
In a film that pretty much begins and ends with a sign that reads "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed" Levinson provides good stories that cross lines of class and color, religion and economics. It's a slow moving story. Then again, the 50s were a slow moving time regardless of the monumental cultural changes that were brewing. The running time was the only negative in discussion amongst the other folk at the sneak.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Liberty Heights, he would have paid...
Better than Dateflick level, even with the extra minutes. If you complain that there aren't any good stories to watch, this is what you want to see.
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