[Screen It]

(1999) (Adrien Brody, Ben Foster) (R)

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Drama: Two Jewish brothers find their close-knit, partially isolated world expanding as they cross over previously insurmountable boundaries and taboos during the mid-1950s in Baltimore.
It's 1954 Baltimore and brothers Van (ADRIEN BRODY) and Ben Kurtzman (BEN FOSTER) have grown up near the predominantly Jewish neighbor of Liberty Heights. Just until recently, and thanks to their parents, Nate (JOE MANTEGNA) and Ada (BEBE NEUWIRTH) and grandmother Rose (FRANIA RUBINEK), they've thought that most everyone in the world was Jewish.

Yet this was a time of anti-Semitism, racism and distinct class differences, where attending a party in a Gentile neighborhood might mean ending up in a fight, or being attracted to a person of another race brings outrage from the involved parents.

That's exactly what happens with the Kurtzman brothers. The older one, Van, attends a Halloween party with his buddies Yussel (DAVID KRUMHOLTZ) and Alan (KEVIN SUSSMAN) where the former gets into just such a anti-Semitic fight while Van falls for Dubbie (CAROLYN MURPHY), a pretty but somewhat snobbish young woman. Of course he doesn't know that she's already seeing Trey (JUSTIN CHAMBERS), a dashing young man with a penchant for dangerous behavior including drinking and driving.

Meanwhile, Ben finds himself falling for Sylvia (REBEKAH JOHNSON), the first black student integrated into his school. While he anticipates the problems such a friendship and potential relationship can generate, especially with her father, he finds himself learning a thing or two about being black in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the boys' dad, Nate, runs a burlesque business with his partners, Louie (CHARLEY SCALIES), Charlie (RICHARD KLINE) and Pete (VINCENT GUASTAFERRO), but they've discovered that they can make more money from their neighborhood numbers game.

Things go well until they add a bonus number and Little Melvin (ORLANDO JONES), a small-time, black drug dealer hits the numbers with a huge bet, thus winning a $100,000 payoff. Not having the money to pay him off, Nate and his partners try to figure out to solve their dilemma, and their solution eventually involves Ben and the rest of the family in ways they never expected.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Many a parent has told their children that if you're going to do something, "Make sure you do it right." That being the case, writer/director Barry Levinson's parents must have instilled some good qualities in their son because "Liberty Heights," his fourth, period based, Baltimore set film, is as enjoyable and well- crafted as its three predecessors.

The Baltimore native who earlier scored with locally set films including "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon" returns once again to his old stomping grounds for this period piece about growing up Jewish in that city during the 1950s.

Although not entirely autobiographical, the film is apparently the closest to Levinson's experiences of growing up in Baltimore. An examination of racial, religious and class differences in the 50s, the film is perhaps the most accessible of his period pictures mainly due to the interesting characters, solid and personable performances and generally intriguing and multilayered story.

Much like "Diner" (that starred the likes of Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and Ellen Barkin to name just a few), this one may one day also be known as the picture that helped launch the careers of a great ensemble cast of up and coming future stars.

Levinson, who's also directed films such as "Bugsy," "Rainman" and "The Natural," has always had a knack for attracting talented performers who seem perfect for their roles and mesh well together, and that's certainly the case here.

When the chemistry of a family and/or group of friends feels natural and credible right from the beginning of a film, you know that the director and casting director have done their homework. The effect here is that the audience immediately feels comfortable with the characters and the overall setup.

Although nothing that spectacular or completely gripping or engrossing ever transpires as far as the story goes, Levinson keeps things interesting throughout. He also perfectly -- or at least seemingly perfectly -- captures the look and feel of 1950s Baltimore in a time when everyone's isolated worlds began to change.

Splitting the film into three distinct but related stories of the Jewish family members dealing with "the other kind" (which is how the older generation refers to the Gentile), Levinson tackles the various social subjects in a nearly always successful and entertaining fashion.

While each story seems near equally weighted in terms of screen time, the most enjoyable, in my opinion, concerns young Ben and his "forbidden love" with his school's first black student. While clearly not the first time that cross-racial subject has been explored, the fresh exuberance of the performances by Ben Foster (who makes his major film debut) and Rebekah Johnson (who had bit parts in films such as "As Good As It Gets") are what make that particular segment so effective.

Of course, the rest of the performances are quite good as well. Joe Mantegna ("The Rat Pack," "Thinner") and Bebe Neuwirth ("Celebrity," TV's "Cheers") are quite good as the boys' parents, while Adrien Brody ("Summer of Sam," "The Thin Red Line") delivers a solid performance as Ben's older brother who spends much of the film figuratively and literally looking for his "Cinderella," nicely played by Carolyn Murphy (a model making her acting debut). Meanwhile, and as is the case with most of the films in which he appears, David Krumholtz ("10 Things I Hate About You," "Slums of Beverly Hills") steals the show as Van's Jewish friend who's determined to "infiltrate" the Gentile world.

With plenty of funny moments -- Ben dressed as Hitler for Halloween and his Jewish family's reaction is a classic -- and its share of touching ones, including a highly effective ending, the film hits plenty of the right notes to make it a mostly winning and entertaining experience.

Although the old saying goes that the third time is the charm, writer/director Barry Levinson proves that his fourth outing at exploring life in "old time" Baltimore is just as charming as those that preceded it. As such, we give "Liberty Heights" a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 15, 1999 / Posted December 10, 1999

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