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Metro Pulse Middling Heights

Barry Levinson aspires to 'Diner' greatness, but serves up a lukewarm rehash.

By Coury Turczyn

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  When Barry Levinson made his directorial debut in 1982 with Diner, it seemed like the career of an important new talent had been launched. Diner, a recollection of long-ago pals and their conversations in a Baltimore greasy spoon, was a coming-of-age story that felt spontaneous, natural, and fresh. Levinson artfully balanced an ensemble cast with a talky script that may have lacked "action," but more than made up for it with comedy and heart. It was a small movie that gave hope to critics who were afraid that personal filmmaking was a thing of the past, giving way to the era of "high concept" blockbusters.

But it was a false hope. Rather than pursue his own muse, Levinson proceeded to go Hollywood, directing inoffensively mediocre, big-budget "A" pictures like The Natural, Young Sherlock Holmes, Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, and Bugsy. And then there were the totally wretched just-doing-it-for-the-money wrecks: Toys, Disclosure, Jimmy Hollywood, Sphere...If ever a film director had given up his artistic yearnings for the almighty Hollywood dollar, it would have to be Barry Levinson. But to give Levinson his due, he's at least felt guilty about it, because every so often he tries to reconnect with his lost Diner vibe and make a "personal" movie set in his old hometown: Tin Men in '87 and Avalon in '90. And now, to complete his "Baltimore cycle," there's Liberty Heights, which is being hyped as the auteur's most autobiographical tale yet. What a shame, then, that it's mostly a very pleasant bore.

All the elements seem to be in place for a fine coming-of-age/start-of-a-new-era movie: affecting characters, a nicely drawn '50s period setting, a social backdrop of changing racial and ethnic mores. So what's missing? Well, unlike Diner, there's little comedy; unlike Avalon, there's little drama. What's left is flaccid storytelling—a movie full of interesting characters without much to do.

Ben Foster stars as Ben, Liberty Height's narrator, a teenager raised in Baltimore's Jewish district whose school has just become integrated. This comes in the form of Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a black student in one of his classes for whom he soon develops a crush. Meanwhile, his older brother Van (Adrien Brody) crashes a blueblood party and develops his own crush on a Barbie-perfect, high society babe (Carolyn Murphy). And then their father (Joe Mantegna), facing the waning days of his burlesque theater, finds himself immersed in running a numbers racket to make ends meet—eventually partnering with a black drug dealer.

Whenever a movie broaches the topic of racial or religious intolerance, audiences instantly brace for something really bad to happen—particularly in a period piece set during the civil rights era. A Jewish man wants to make love to a blonde WASP? He'll probably be killed. A white teenage boy wants to date a black teenage girl? Somebody will no doubt be beaten severely. This is because we all must learn important lessons about prejudice, and the accepted movie method of doing this is by brutalizing really likable characters. While this may be understandable, it doesn't work for every film—and Levinson refreshingly doesn't make his characters undergo any deadly trials by fire. Instead, he looks at the smaller moments of integration's history as well-intentioned people try to learn more about each other despite their misconceptions, such as Ben's introduction to black issues via Red Foxx albums, or Van's realization that perfect WASP girls can be really screwed up. Everyone buys into stereotypes, Levinson points out, even really nice people—but they can be overcome.

As refreshing a focus as this may be, though, it doesn't exactly make for gripping drama, either. It's clear that Levinson wants to depict not only fond memories of days gone by, but to also say that it's a good thing those days are (mostly) behind us. The result is pretty muddled—are we supposed to be feeling nostalgia or outrage? Perhaps both. But if that's the case, Levinson could've used a script doctor and a good film editor to sharpen up the characters' conflicts; Liberty Heights is all build-up, no pay-off. Every time you brace for something to happen to one of the characters—good or bad—nothing really does. Granted, that's how life can be in reality—but this is a frickin' movie, for God's sake, and somebody in it ought to battle an injustice or at least get laid. If it weren't for the personable acting of both Foster and Brody, you'd barely care about what actually happens to the characters.

Nevertheless, though Liberty Heights isn't exactly a return to Levinson's Diner form, it is still a helluva lot better than Sphere...

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