Liberty Heights

on November 19, 1999 by Bridget Byrne
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   Barry Levinson returns to his roots once again to explore what it was like to grow up in Baltimore in the mid-'50s. The result is a charming film, infused and emotionally heightened by the imagination of memory, which captures the struggle between embracing one's own uniqueness and reaching out for the whole wide world.
   The Jewish community in which two brothers--high-schooler Ben and college student Val--are raised is isolated from within and without by its own traditions and others' prejudice. Within lies not just specific culture but the individuality of a family in no way stereotypical. While mother and grandmother keep custom alive, father steps beyond his fading burlesque business into illegal gambling, a racket which is undergoing its own cultural diffusion.
   As the boys concern themselves with growing up and finding love beyond that of family, the family remains the essential foundation, however shaken, of life's blessings. Fear of the different may be always foolish and often cruel--as this film constantly reveals--but the sense of being loved breeds the hope and confidence that problems and prejudices can be surmounted.
   Both Adrien Brody as Val and Ben Foster as Ben are endearing, convincing and sweetly attractive as the decent young men trying to make sense of a melting pot society which keeps freezing up on them. Rarely has young love been captured on screen with such tenderness absent of cloying cuteness as that between Ben and Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first black student to integrate his classroom. Like the relationship itself, the actors' performances hold gently and truthfully to the specific experience while containing all the complexity and conflict which lies ahead for these young people as they venture into very changing times. The "I'll be right back" remarks they both direct at their parents on graduation day capsulate a sweet truth which can never be.
   The film contains much humor, which it often handles better than its more serious nature. The issues of race, class and religion which the film confronts are eloquently woven into that humor, but sometimes seem a little heavy-handed when overtly voiced or acted out.
   Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth have their own particular emotional glamour as the parents, but their characters, viewed more from without than within, are never as compelling as those of their sons and the young women, particularly Johnson's Rebekah, whom the boys aspire to love.
   There is a bit too much burlesque and Orlando Jones' neighborhood drug dealer, though amusing and redolent of horrors just around the corner, seems a little gimmicky. But there is a wonderful quantity of early rock and roll, original songs by Tom Waits and a splendidly joyous re-creation of James Brown in concert, promising freedoms only dreamed of so far. Starring Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Adrien Brody, Ben Foster and Orlando Jones. Directed and written by Barry Levinson. Produced by Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. A Warner Bros. release. Comedy/Drama. Rated R for crude language and sex-related material. Running time: 128 min
Tags: Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Adrien Brody, Ben Foster and Orlando Jones. Directed and written by Barry Levinson. Produced by Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. A Warner Bros. release. Comedy/Drama, emotional, graduation, conflict, humor
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