Kahn's last role lifts `Berlin'

February 25, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Judy Berlin" takes place during a solar eclipse on the second day of school in Babylon, Long Island. The dimming light, the time of year, the name of the place -- all lend a metaphorical sense of impending cataclysm to Eric Mendelsohn's film, which possesses moments of fleeting grace, pathos and beauty, even if it ultimately doesn't amount to much.

It might have amounted to more had Mendelsohn, who makes his feature debut here, allowed his title character to assume her rightful place as the film's narrative center. Edie Falco's Judy -- a small-town actress who is leaving for Los Angeles in just a few hours -- is an irrepressible, unself-consciously charming creation, animated by Falco with an appealing, slightly bruised esprit.

Instead, the audience is asked to follow the thoroughly unsympathetic David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a whiny, blocked filmmaker whose jaundiced view of his family and hometown belies a soft underbelly of loneliness and self-deception. As David wanders around town, we meet the people he presumably was seeking to escape, among them his father, a frustrated elementary school principal (Bob Dishy), and a brittle schoolteacher (Barbara Barrie) who becomes a completely different person with her students.

By far the most heartbreaking in an ensemble of sad characters is David's mother, Alice, whose pristine house is but the neurotic embodiment of her own emotional squalor. Portrayed by Madeline Kahn in a moving final performance, Alice is a confounding bundle of contradictions, at once fragile and annoying, insisting on foisting her dreams and fantasies on anyone close by. "There's no `sub' to it," David says when she asks him to interpret a dream she had the night before. "You're all liminal."

Filmed with a sense of bleak poetry in black and white, "Judy Berlin" unfolds as a series of encounters between wounded people, the most poignant of which take place between Alice and her family and neighbors.

It's a wonderful performance with which to remember Kahn, whose pinging, sing-song voice and kewpie-doll mouth lend her character a childlike innocence, even as the lines on her face denote a deeper, hard-won wisdom. See "Judy Berlin" if only because we won't see the likes of her again.

`Judy Berlin'

Starring Edie Falco, Madeline Kahn, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Aaron Harnick

Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

Rating This film is not rated

Running time 94 minutes

Released by The Shooting Gallery

Sun score ***

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