Give us `Liberty' and give us depth

Review: Barry Levinson delves into Baltimore's past again, this time producing a subtle, wide-ranging and sometimes humorous film about race, prejudice and family.

November 19, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Barry Levinson makes a vivid, deeply layered addition to his cycle of Baltimore films with "Liberty Heights," in which the director once again returns to his hometown during the 1950s.

But unlike "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon," "Liberty Heights" deals with far more than one of the city's tightly woven clans coping with encroaching change. In this movie, Levinson has widened his lens, taking a newly expansive view of Baltimore's ethnic, religious and class differences on the cusp of profound social transformations. If it's taken him four movies to acknowledge Baltimore's black community, "Liberty Heights" is well worth the wait. Eschewing polemic or sentimentality for a nuanced view of race and its permutations, Levinson makes his points obliquely, leaving filmgoers to discover on their own just how resonant his observations still are.

"Liberty Heights" is set in 1954. It's a post-Brown vs. Board of Education, pre-Madalyn Murray O'Hair world, in which the homeroom of Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) has been integrated, but where he still must join the rest of his primarily Jewish class in reciting the 23rd Psalm before class. On the first day of school, Ben, a senior, becomes fascinated with a black classmate named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), but is dissuaded from getting to know her, first out of shyness and later after learning that her father is a prominent physician who would frown on his daughter dating a white boy, especially of the lower classes.

Actually, the Kurtzmans are solidly middle class. But Ben's father Nate (Joe Mantegna) provides for his family by running a burlesque house on Baltimore's notorious Block, as well as overseeing a little numbers racket on the side. While Ben grapples with fear and desire at school, Nate worries about the IRS, competition from a rumored state lottery and a small-time black criminal named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) who just won a $100,000 pot. (Meanwhile, Ben's brother Van, played by Adrien Brody, becomes seduced by a mysterious gentile girl and her alien world.)

These are just the rough structural underpinnings of "Liberty Heights," which is effective not for its plot but for the countless moments of observant humor that bring so many truths home with subtle poignancy. There are no great speeches in "Liberty Heights," no billboard scenes where the moral is announced. Instead, Levinson simply shows the audience how anti-Semitism provokes a curious blend of shame and pride when one of Van's friends bleaches his hair blond to fit in with wealthy WASP society, then sneers when he discovers that they settle for Oriental rugs instead of wall-to-wall.

Levinson's most bravura Baltimore film yet, "Liberty Heights" benefits from a bold look provided by production designer Vincent Peranio and cinematographer Chris Doyle -- who has filmed Baltimore in all its beguiling neon glory -- as well as the smoothly eloquent editing of Stu Linder. Many of the film's tour de force moments happen when Levinson and Linder intercut seemingly polar opposite scenes: a family dinner with a stripper gyrating sensuously on a stage, or an electrifying James Brown concert with a saddle shoe gliding over the ice at an upscale country party. Levinson evokes the time with fluency and brio, and he never panders to its nostalgic temptations: He's not afraid to use two anachronistic but perfectly suited Tom Waits tunes to underline the movie's more urgently sensual scenes.

Following Ben and Van as they explore other worlds, "Liberty Heights" pulses with all of the exhilaration and anxiety of a time of great possibility, even revolution. (When James Brown, played to electrifying effect by Carlton Smith, launches into "Please, Please, Please" with an off-handed comment about his upcoming first record, the frisson of imminent upheaval is palpable.) But the revolutions here are primarily those of the heart: The film's most tender, articulate and well-played sequences are those in which Ben and Sylvia negotiate a budding romance that is doomed at virtually every turn, including by their own inchoate prejudices. When Ben is surprised that Sylvia gets off a streetcar before it reaches downtown, Sylvia reacts with a frosty edge. "Why, is that where I'm supposed to live?" she asks.

"Liberty Heights" has its weaknesses. Van's pursuit of a WASP princess named Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy) doesn't have the depth or heft of Ben's far more revealing encounters with Sylvia, and it allows Levinson again to indulge a stereotype -- the unattainable shiksa goddess -- without exploring it. (He even has Dubbie arrive in one scene on a horse, reprising a similar sequence in "Diner.") Levinson's signature male sexual banter -- usually within the confines of the Fells Point Diner -- has become equally tiresome.

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