Liberty Heights

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: Barry Levinson

REVIEWED: 12-13-99

Whatever happened to the director of Diner and Tin Men? Barry Levinson must have been asking himself that question, since he's returned for the fourth time (the woeful Avalon was the third) to the Baltimore of his youth and of his two best movies. Unfortunately, Liberty Heights owes less to the neighborhood of the title than to the kneejerk politics of subpar Spike Lee and to the mannerisms of Mamet-speak that Levinson no doubt picked up from the screenwriter of his surprise hit Wag the Dog.

Set in the '50s, Heights loosely follows the skewed adventures of the Kurtzman family, whose patriarch, Nate (Joe Mantegna), makes a dicy living from his burlesque house and numbers racket. Nonconformist son Ben (Ben Foster) acts out by dressing up as Hitler on Halloween; his brother Van (Adrien Brody) crashes parties in the white-shoe, WASPy part of town. Ben falls for Sylvia (a decorous but sly Rebekah Johnson), the first black student in their newly integrated school; Van falls for Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy in the Cybill Shepherd role), a bored, rich shiksa. Romance, though, is only an excuse for a lesson in tolerance and ethnic pride. And these characters don't just wear that pride on their sleeves, they scrawl it on their bare chests -- three of them have the word "JEW" painted across their torsos in a scene where they liberate a segregated local pool. Such liberal platitudes and a relentless soundtrack of period pop tunes are all that hold together Levinson's exercise in self-conscious nostalgia.

--Peter Keough

Full Length Reviews
Liberty Heights

Other Films by Barry Levinson
Wag the Dog

Film Vault Suggested Links
Dangerous Minds
The Bad and the Beautiful
The Trip

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