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With: Edie Falco, Aaron Harnick, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Carlin Glynn, Bette Henritze, Madeline Kahn, Julie Kavner, Anne Meara, Novella Nelson, Peter Appel, Marcia DeBonis, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marcus Giamatti, Judy Graubart
Written by: Eric Mendelsohn
Directed by: Eric Mendelsohn
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 93
Date: 01/01/1999

Judy Berlin (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Total Eclipse of the Heart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

"Quirky" and "funky" are the first two words that come to mind when watching Eric Mendelsohn's Judy Berlin. But those words are going to appear in every review and article about this film, so I'll have to try to do better.

I got the same feeling watching Judy Berlin that I did when I first saw Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise on video in the mid 1980s. This is a film by a guy who is not interested in joining the mainstream. This is a guy who has made a film that amuses himself and who is not worrying about whether or not anyone else is amused. Yet someone else out there has got to have the same... uh... quirky sense of humor. (I did it again.)

Judy Berlin nearly joined the ranks of the obscure. Despite winning the Best Director award at Sundance in 1999, the film sat for a year before it was picked up by the daring little Shooting Gallery festival for distribution in ten major U.S. cities. And indeed, this movie is not for everyone. If you guffawed at Big Daddy, then this movie is not for you. But if you think Buffalo '66 is funny, then I'll see you in line. Judy Berlin, for me, is the kind of humor where you don't laugh immediately. You laugh a week later waiting for the bus when a scene pops into your head, like Julie Kavner saying, "you know, the English don't really eat English muffins. It's all made up."

Ms. Kavner appears in only two small scenes in Judy Berlin, which follows a group of strange and lost people around a small town called Babylon during a very lengthy solar eclipse on the second day of the new school year. Our main character, if there is one, is David Gold (Aaron Harnick) who bumps into an old classmate, Judy Berlin (Edie Falco, from "The Sopranos"). Judy is just about to leave town to become an actress in Hollywood, but reveals that she used to have a crush on David. David's father, the school principal (Bob Dishy), is married to crazy Madeline Kahn (in her last role) but has a crush on a teacher (Barbara Barrie).

Kahn is especially effecting as she desperately tries to find something to cling to. She knows her husband doesn't love her and her son is lost in his own despair. During the eclipse she walks around in the dark with her housekeeper in tow, doing strange things like pretending she's walking on the moon. She's clinging to a last gooey little hope. The role shows Kahn as more than just a gifted comedienne and it makes her death all the more poignant.

The movie is full of little life-moments like that. While time has stopped and the world has shut down characters have time to think about the meaning of life, what they're really doing, and what they want. More appropriately, they don't think. They simply pass the time and, in doing so, the patchwork of their lives comes into view. That's the best I can do to describe the magic of this movie. You can't see any gears turning. It just wafts over you like a silk blanket.

Writer/director Mendelsohn got his start working as an assistant costume designer on a handful of Woody Allen films, from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) to Bullets Over Broadway (1994), and he has developed an Allen-ish sensibility married with a Bergman-esque touch. Judy Berlin looks like a combo of Manhattan (1979) and The Seventh Seal (1956) or Wild Strawberries (1957). But at the same time, it's not a copy. It's his own. Kudos to Mendelsohn for sticking with his vision and not trying to cash in on the indie craze. And, to the small brave handful of you that will go see this movie, kudos to you too.

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