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"JUDY BERLIN"
(1999) (Edie Falco, Aaron Harnick) (Not Rated)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The residents of a small town cope with their personal crises as a total solar eclipse engulfs them in complete midday darkness.
PLOT:
Judy Berlin (EDIE FALCO) is an aspiring actress who wants to make it in show business. The only problem is that she lives in Babylon, Long Island and the only acting gig she can find is that in a tourist-based, historical reenactment. Naturally, she's decided to move to Los Angeles.

On the other hand, 30-year-old David Gold (AARON HARNICK) has returned to Babylon after a failed attempt at filmmaking in California. Now living with his parents - Arthur (BOB DISHY), the local principal, and Alice (MADELINE KAHN), a bored and introspective housewife - David must not only deal with his failure, but also repeated encounters with former classmates, such as Eddie Dillon (MARCUS GIAMATTI) and eventually Judy, who believe he's still a filmmaker.

Meanwhile, Arthur must contend with one of his former and now senile teachers, Dolores Engler (BETTE HENRITZE), as well as a current one, Sue Berlin (BARBARA BARRIE), who's seemingly enamored with him, but emotionally distant with Judy, her daughter. As a prolonged total solar eclipse engulfs Babylon in eerie, midday darkness, the small town's residents cope with their various personal crises.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
There's a popular saying in life that applies particularly well to movies, and that is that "less is more." While that adage can mean different things to different people, in movies - as well as other forms of entertainment - it generally means that a more subtle approach is usually more successful at "delivering the goods" than an overblown one where everything is presented in full. Alfred Hitchcock knew that all too well, and the shower scene in the original "Psycho" is a perfect example. Instead of showing the stabbing in full graphic and gory detail, he held back and showed far less than most people probably realize, thus allowing their imagination to fill in the rest.

That maxim also applies to other types of cinematic scenes - especially those of an amorous or erotic nature - and the use of such restraint is often the sign of a more accomplished and confident filmmaker who realizes that he or she need not be so blatant in their shot selection or storytelling to get their point across to the audience.

That would certainly seem to apply to writer/director Eric Mendelsohn who makes his feature film debut with "Judy Berlin," an odd, but interesting and occasionally affecting look at suburbia. While many films of recent - such as "American Beauty" and "Happiness" -- have shown suburban life in the midst of a serious meltdown and crisis, Mendelsohn seems more intent on demonstrating his small suburban town as something existing in its own "Twilight Zone" type world.

Other than the title character who's desperate and ready to get out, the other inhabitants of Babylon seem to be dazed and confused about their place in life. While that, and cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf's stark, black and white photography give the film an intriguing look and hook that carry the picture for quite some time, Mendelsohn's film eventually boils down to a whole lot of something about nothing.

While the director's observance of the "less is more" philosophy is not only a welcomed change to the standard "in your face" filmmaking forced on today's audiences, but also manages to initially entrance the viewer, audiences may be apt to grow tired of the proceedings once they realize that the film isn't getting, or ultimately going anywhere. In this case, "less" unfortunately ends up being just what it describes.

Of course, many supposed "high brow" critics and viewers may read far more into this effort than what's really there, citing the abundant symbolism that includes, but isn't limited to, the obvious eclipse-induced darkness that engulfs the town of Babylon (definition: "A place of captivity or exile"), talk of the pinhole viewer for viewing the eclipse (or life in the town, if you will), and the many views of and visits to the train station (always used to symbolize the real or hopeful means of escape and/or change).

Yet, for all of that, the picture never amounts to much and all of that heavy symbolism eventually becomes too leaden for the picture to support. As a result, it slowly begins to sink into boredom as the story "progresses" onward. Yes, it's understood that the pacing and subdued performances are deliberate and one can get a sense of what Mendelsohn's after, but that alone certainly doesn't ensure a great or entertaining picture.

It is a promising effort, however, and the young auteur gets a lot of mileage from his cast, notwithstanding their purposefully flat but occasionally droll performances. In the title role, Edie Falco ("Random Hearts," HBO's "The Sopranos") is mostly a delight as the aspiring actress burdened by a lack of talent, while Aaron Harnick (a TV writer for "The Drew Carrey Show") - presumably playing a loose version of Mendelsohn - is appropriately and believably down on himself.

More interesting parts go to Barbara Barrie (TV's "Suddenly Susan" and the recipient of an Oscar nomination for "Breaking Away") as the troubled school teacher, Bob Dishy ("Don Juan De Marco," "Used People") as her principal, and the late Madeline Kahn ("Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein") as the forlorn housewife who becomes mesmerized by the midday eclipse. While they deliver intriguing performances, some viewers are apt to become frustrated that their characters are never fully developed nor really end up resolving anything.

While that may be the filmmaker's intent, it doesn't necessarily translate to grand entertainment for the audience. Although the "Twilight Zone" type aura and proceeding do keep things interesting for a while, the film simply doesn't have the big twist that Rod Serling's old show would always deliver at the end and thus comes off as a picture that ends up slowly going nowhere. Interesting at times and occasionally thought-provoking, Mendelsohn's first film is a worthy effort and certainly shows that the writer/director should have a bright cinematic future ahead of him, but it unfortunately runs out of gas before crossing the finishing line. As such, "Judy Berlin" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 14, 2000 / Posted February 25, 2000


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