Combustible Celluloid
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With: Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, Orlando Jones, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna, Rebekah Johnson, David Krumholtz, Richard Kline, Vincent Guastaferro, Justin Chambers, Carolyn Murphy, Anthony Anderson, Kiersten Warren, Elizabeth Bennett
Written by: Barry Levinson
Directed by: Barry Levinson
MPAA Rating: R for crude language and sex-related material
Running Time: 127
Date: 11/17/1999

Liberty Heights (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Sweet 'Liberty'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even though he's now a Bay Area resident, writer and director Barry Levinson's heart is still in Baltimore. In fact, his best movies have been part of his own personal Baltimore series: Diner (1981), Tin Men (1987) and Avalon (1990). He seems to put more care and love into these than into his studio projects like Rain Man (1988), Disclosure (1994), or Sphere (1998). The Baltimore series also shows off his underused skill as a screenwriter (developed while working on Mel Brooks movies such as 1977's High Anxiety). And his new film Liberty Heights is a worthy addition.

Liberty Heights tells three intertwined stories of a Baltimore Jewish family in 1954. The father (Joe Mantegna) works in a burlesque house and in the numbers racket. He has trouble when a cheap hood (Orlando Jones) hits the number and wins big. The older son (Adrien Brody) falls for a blonde goyish princess (Carolyn Murphy) and the younger son (Ben Foster) falls for a black girl (Rebekah Johnson) in his newly integrated school. Bebe Neuwirth plays the long-suffering mother.

Though the movie is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as in his parents' response when Foster descends the stairs on Halloween dressed up as Hitler, its overall strength lies in its handling of racial and religious stereotypes. The movie's many storylines tackle these issues in wonderful, heartwarming ways without preaching. There's even an intelligent discussion at one point about the slavery of the Jews vs. the slavery of the blacks. A kiss at the movie's climax shocks the characters in the movie, but for us it feels just right.

Despite the strong writing, there are flaws in this movie. The three stories seemed to climax at different times, making the ending of the movie feel a long time coming. Liberty Heights is more in the middle of the road than some of the earlier Baltimore films. In my eyes, Tin Men is the best of the series because it adds a salty venom to its mix of pretty pictures, nostalgia, and raunchy jokes. Still, Liberty Heights is worth a look, with its rich characters and dialogue, and its gorgeous cinematography by Chris Doyle (best known for his work on Wong Kar-wai's films Chungking Express and Fallen Angels).

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