Jew Talkin' to Me?

Reviews of the latest films.
Nov. 25 1999 3:30 AM

Jew Talkin' to Me?

Liberty Heights fails to solve Barry Levinson's Jewish problem. Almodóvar tells it straight in All About My Mother.

Liberty Heights

Directed by
Barry Levinson
Warner Bros.


All About My Mother
Directed by
Pedro Almodóvar
Sony Pictures Classics


The World Is Not Enough
Directed by
Michael Apted
MGM

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Barry Levinson has said that his new movie, Liberty Heights, was born when a magazine critic made a breezily derisive reference to the Jewishness of Dustin Hoffman's character in Levinson's dud sci-fi picture Sphere (1998). Why, he asked, make an issue out of a character's ethnicity? The barbs of that (Jewish) critic don't seem like such a big deal to this (Jewish) critic, but in Levinson they clearly touched a nerve. Trounced a nerve, even. He has responded the way his teen-age alter ego Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster) and friends respond in Liberty Heights when they defy a sign on a local pool that reads, "No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed." He's saying, "You got a problem with Jewish? I'll show you Jewish!"

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Does Levinson fully understand what teed him off? The charismatic young men in Diner (1982), his first autobiographical work (and his masterpiece), weren't labeled as Jewish, and its most memorable turns were by actors named Kevin and Mickey. In his third on-screen visit to his native Baltimore, Avalon (1990), the milieu finally was Jewish, but the director was more interested in making sweeping points about the cultural fragmentation of the central immigrant family--and, by extension, the American family--than in exploring his tribal or religious roots. (That family was impersonated by those Hebrews Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Joan Plowright.) The point is: Levinson airbrushed the Jewishness out of his movie memoirs, and that review must on some level have shamed him--made him feel as if he'd been dodging the issue.

The problem, I think, is that he's still dodging the issue. Levinson might be so assimilated by now that he barely remembers what would impel someone to filter the Jewishness out of his or her autobiographical alter egos. On the basis of the family depicted in Liberty Heights, he hardly seems to remember what a Jew is--only what a Jew is not. It's not a WASP. It's not an African-American. As a boy in the exclusively Jewish Liberty Heights section of Baltimore, being Jewish was just being; it was when he perceived his "otherness," the movie suggests, that a more complicated relationship to the world began.

That's what Liberty Heights attempts to recapture. The movie opens in 1954, when 16-year-old Ben first pokes his head out of his neighborhood and when desegregation is starting to bring together disparate ethnic and racial groups. Jews are not only interacting with WASPs and blacks; in the case of Ben and his older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), they're falling for them--much to the horror of the older generation, both white and black. Ben takes a shine to a "colored" girl (Rebekah Johnson), who sneaks him into her (upper-middle-class) house and introduces him to rock 'n' roll and to comedians who make fun of white people. Meanwhile, Van and his buddies crash a Halloween party on the WASP side of town, where Van goes gaga for a chill blonde goddess (Carolyn Murphy) in a fairy-godmother ensemble--the supreme shiksa. Even their dad, Nate (Joe Mantegna), is forced to ally himself with non-Jews. The owner of a dying burlesque house whose side business, the illegal numbers racket, has become his lone source of income, Nate loses a fortune to a small-time black drug dealer called Little Melvin (Orlando Jones)--a loose cannon who ultimately threatens his livelihood and his family.

Levinson's remarks about the review of Sphere--which was released only last year--suggest something else about Liberty Heights: that it was written fast.  That might not be a problem if its canvas weren't so broad, but Levinson doesn't work simply anymore. He wants to make an epic. So he spreads the narrative thin, and the script plays like a first draft. It's full of wonderful bits that don't mesh (some of them could be spun off into their own movies) and with characters conceived either too coarsely or too vaguely. Little Melvin is a flaming racist outrage, and I can't make any sense out of Trey (Justin Chambers), a glamorous, rich WASP who's fond of crashing cars and who takes such a liking to Van that he appears to be foisting his girlfriend--the blonde goddess--on the Jew. Is this Aryan guilt, or does he really want to jump Van's bones? No clue from the actors, who look uniformly marooned.

The crosscutting among the movie's various strands is even weirder. While Van and his buddies comb wealthy neighborhoods for a glimpse of his shiksa, Nate auditions a stripper whose costume doesn't arrive and who ends up doffing her conservative street clothes on stage to wild acclaim. Is Levinson drawing a parallel here--saying that Jews are turned on by WASPs because they're so buttoned-up? (I think, alas, he is.) And when he crosscuts between a James Brown concert and a WASP party is he saying that Jews are turned on by blacks because blacks are so unbuttoned--because they shake, rattle, and roll? (Ditto.) Is he saying that coming of age as a Jew means learning to embrace both chocolate and vanilla?

In the end, the narrator, Ben, retreats into generic memory-play mode: "If I'd known things would no longer be, I'd have tried harder to remember them." Loss of the past--that's a universal theme, a "gentile" theme. The director has backed away from what appears to be his real, more local, theme, which is the tug of war within American Jews of his generation between a compulsion to embrace other cultures and a feeling of superiority toward them. That idea is hilariously embodied by his best character, Van's friend Yussel (David Krumholtz), who starts a brawl when he gets his nose rubbed in his Jewishness at one WASP party and shows up for the next with his hair dyed blond and with a tale of Nordic ancestry. I wish there were more of Yussel in Ben and Van, who are both unforgivably wide-eyed and marshmallowy. Their blandness neuters what should be the movie's reason for being.

Liberty Heights is less gaseous than Avalon. The Jewish boys' exploration of life among the "other kind" is often wryly funny, and when they show up at the familiar Baltimore diner to compare notes, time stops and we bask in their banter. If I sound sour compared with other critics, it's because I think Levinson missed a chance to get something unique and audacious on screen: the story of a thin-skinned Jewish kid who'd grow up to make autobiographical movies that somehow leave out the Jewishness and then get so enraged by a critic's offhand projection of Jewishness into a big WASPy sci-fi picture that he vows to go back and remake his other films with Jews instead of gentiles. That would be something to see.

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C ritics have been falling all over themselves to announce that All About MyMother marks Pedro Almodóvar's arrival as a mature, world-class director. Not to take anything away from his movie--it's a lovely work--but Almodóvar arrived as a world-class director 15 years ago, when his silly, campy, and impassioned melodramas were like joyous dances on Gen. Franco's tomb. His new work is his most sober, maybe because his alter ego--an 18-year-old devoted son, aspiring writer, and worshipper of flamboyant actresses--gets run over by a car while chasing an actress (who'd just played Blanche DuBois) for her autograph. This shocking act of self-effacement paves the way for a film suffused by the boy's loss. His grief-stricken mother (Cecilia Roth) goes off in search of the father the boy never met--now an AIDS-ridden transvestite in Barcelona--and ends up at the center of a benign matriarchal society that includes the very actress (Marisa Paredes) that her son was pursuing.

The film has been consciously devised as the flip side of All About Eve (1950)--as a tale of women not bitchily at one another's throats but holding one another together through life's most senseless tragedies. (The definition of women here is broad enough to include transvestites and transsexuals.) Things that might once have been screamingly campy are now played "straight": People dramatize their emotions but rarely overdramatize them. And even though the film is full of laughs, the jokes hover on the edge of the abyss: This is a world in which lurid colors and extravagant gestures are means of filling the void.

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