Liberty Heights is the fourth of director Barry Levinson’s "Baltimore Films." Levinson knows the city well, having grown up there. And just as a basketball team on a long punishing road trip looks forward to once again having home-court advantage, Liberty Heights serves as a safe and comfortable haven for Levinson after several less than successful films (Jimmy Hollywood, Disclosure, Sphere) that were all departures from his familiar turf. (His 1997 Wag the Dog did touch a popular nerve.)
Liberty Heights is Levinson’s most loving paean to Baltimore yet, but perhaps the slightest. The setting is 1954, fitting neatly between the immediate post-World War II Avalon (1990) and the late Fifties Diner (1982) and Tin Men (1987). The title refers to Baltimore’s Jewish neighborhood, and the film chronicles with adoring detail the experiences of the Kurtzman family, mostly through the eyes of high school age Ben (Ben Foster) who narrates the film. He sounds much like a young Albert Brooks, wise and cynical far beyond his years.
Dad (Joe Mantegna) runs the two family businesses – one shady (a burlesque house), the other shadier (a numbers racket). Older brother Van (Adrien Brody, The Thin Red Line) has his own issues with his heritage; he’s fallen in love with a blonde WASP goddess (model Carolyn Murphy) who finds his attentions amusing in rather condescending fashion. Mom (Bebe Neuwirth) and a doting, kvetching Bobe round out the Kurtzman clan.
The early Fifties brought sweeping changes to Baltimore and the rest of the country, and the film deals with most of them – McCarthyism and the Red Scare, racial integration, religious identity, the rise of television. We see Ben experience many things for the first time. Having led a sequestered life, he’s even surprised to learn that that there are people in the world who aren’t Jewish. He faces prejudice, both because he’s Jewish and because he’s white. Negroes finally attend his school, one of them a girl named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). Ben finds her attractive and mysterious, she eventually introduces him to James Brown and Redd Foxx despite her father’s admonitions and his mother’s dismay.
This is a lush ride, as Levinson shows us his boyhood Baltimore using a collection of vignettes that we have once experienced ourselves or longingly wished we had. Like an elder intent on preserving his heritage, he continually reminds us: this is how it was – never forget. The exacting details are certainly all there – the look and sound of the coin box on the bus, the daily recitation of the 23rd Psalm before school, civil defense drills with students huddled in hallways and books covering their heads for protection from Russian bombs.
Music of the period sets up a languid atmosphere, sometimes in counterpoint to the social upheaval taking place, yet never resorting to the cliched uses of music sometimes prevalent in period films. The ensemble cast is uniformly good, particularly Foster and Johnson.
But Levinson chooses to depict history in a strangely sanitized fashion. Racial and religious bigotry, while a major focus of the film, are portrayed as holding little rancor or animosity save for an occasional fist fight or a cross look. The family strip club and numbers operation are the cleanest and most wholesome ever. And Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, while gorgeous, is mostly a succession of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers. Virtually everything is seen through an affectionate and misty lens – even the "No Jews, Dogs, or Colored" sign at the municipal pool.
The film has other flaws. Characterizations hardly get deeper than the defined family role – we know little about Van other than that he’s "Ben’s Older Brother", likewise with "Mom" and "Grandma". Joe Mantegna’s character is largely Dad as Saint – his biggest shortcoming is sneaking off during Rosh Hashanah services to check out the new Cadillacs. And the film plays out as more a collection of scenes than a cohesive narrative.
But in the end it hardly matters. Viewing Liberty Heights is like listening to your Grandmother tell a story: she probably doesn’t get all the facts right, usually makes things seem a lot better than they really were, and tends to ramble on without much of a conclusion. But it’s a revealing and rewarding tale, so you’re always happy to listen to her. Only the most hardened cynics need not apply.
– Bob Aulert