Barry Levinson goes deep with "Liberty Heights," and the result is a grand slam. Summoning up boyhood memories of the '50s for his fourth "Baltimore picture" and infusing them with mature and pointed observations about race, class and religion in the U.S., this exceptionally successful director seems to be rediscovering his voice as a writer, and in the process has made his best film.

Barry Levinson goes deep with “Liberty Heights,” and the result is a grand slam. Summoning up boyhood memories of the ’50s for his fourth “Baltimore picture” and infusing them with mature and pointed observations about race, class and religion in the U.S., this exceptionally successful director seems to be rediscovering his voice as a writer, and in the process has made his best film. A small-scaled sleeper compared with most of the heavyweight year-end releases, this entertaining and entirely satisfying ensemble piece should ride top reviews and warm word of mouth to sustained B.O. through the holiday season and beyond.

Levinson has said that he was inspired — or perhaps provoked — to write “Liberty Heights” by what he interpreted as an anti-Semitic comment in a review of his dud 1998 sci-fier “Sphere.” If so, the review was one of the most worthwhile ever published, as it unleashed a drive and clarity rarely, if ever, seen in this filmmaker’s work before. Surpassing “Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Avalon,” the new picture pinpoints with great acuity and precision a moment when previously partitioned segments of society began gingerly mixing and influencing one another.

Although it balances and weaves together several storylines and any number of characters with consummate skill, pic is rooted in the eponymous neighborhood, a middle-class enclave so ethnically uniform in 1954 that a teenage boy can observe in all sincerity, “The whole world was Jewish.” Great early comic mileage is generated by the kid’s initial visit to a gentile household, where, among other things, he is shocked to find that they eat “raw bread.”

But then all of the film’s younger characters must discover that other worlds exist beyond the ones in which they grew up. At the outset, the local country club is fronted by a sign proclaiming, “No Jews, Dogs or Colored Allowed.” At the same time, in the Kurtzman family, the grownups live by the motto “If they’re not Jewish, they’re ‘the other kind.’” This attitude is not entirely heeded, however, by the two boys, lanky college student Van (Adrien Brody) and high schooler Ben (Ben Foster). After daring to cross into Wasp territory with a couple of buddies to attend a party, Ben falls hard for blonde, blue-eyed goddess Dubbie (supermodel Carolyn Murphy), although the evening is ruined when one of his buddies gets into a fight with a belligerent blueblood.

A quiet rebel, Ben practically gives his grandmother a heart attack when he dresses up as Hitler for Halloween, and soon pursues an ardent friendship with Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first black student in his class. A doctor’s daughter, Sylvia is far more well-to-do and self-possessed than Ben but reciprocates his interest, all in the face of certain intolerance from both sets of parents.

While the boys’ mother (Bebe Neuwirth) and grandma hold down the fort at home, their nattily attired, very ’40s-style father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), is coping with changing times in dubious ways. With business at their downtown burlesque house seriously waning, Nate and his cronies attempt to juice up their two-bit numbers racket with a big-payoff bonus option, never believing that anyone will win it. Unfortunately for them, the man who does is Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a small-time black reefer dealer.

When the well-mannered but crooked partners can’t pay him the $100,000, the gaudy, vaguely sinister Melvin, who harbors deep suspicions of all whites, looks for a way to gain the upper hand. Story veers perilously close to outright melodrama when Melvin takes advantage of the opportunity to kidnap Nate’s son Ben, along with Sylvia and two friends who have arranged a date of sorts at a James Brown concert at which Ben and his buddy are the only whites in attendance. But just when it looks as though the film might take the easy way out with manufactured confrontations or gratuitous violence, Levinson reasserts its human grounding in resolutions to all its story strands that are at once bittersweet, properly scaled and historically prescient.

Levinson eventually rotates every one of his main characters a quarter turn from how they initially appear, revealing added shadings and complexities. The Wasps, at first seen from the Jews’ p.o.v. as privileged and unapproachable royalty, are soon shown to be fighting demons instilled by their status and high expectations. This is notably true of Trey (Calvin Klein model Justin Chambers) who reveals a deliberately hidden generous side when he surprisingly gives the infatuated Van the green light to date his g.f. Dubbie, and of Dubbie herself, who looks like the most glamorous member of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” and has as many problems as any of them.

Also put into interesting and unusually bifurcated perspective are the blacks. While Little Melvin, played in marvelously insinuating style by Jones, could be superficially taken as a stereotypical street dealer, his methods and personality point toward the future, whereas Nate and his boys represent the generation of penny-ante criminals that is going the way of strippers and baggy-pants comics. In a more than incidental way, the burlesque sequences present a flavorsome picture of a bygone field of entertainment (a strip from street clothes by a young lady is a knockout) that is put in startling relief by the sizzlingly contemporary James Brown show, which is very enjoyably staged.

Contrasted with Melvin’s milieu is Sylvia’s upper-middle class neighborhood. Despite her father’s strict rules against fraternizing with whites, Sylvia sneaks Ben into her bedroom on occasion, and the exposure she provides him to “Negro music” and comedy hits him like a bombshell. All of Ben’s buddies assume there can only be one reason he’s spending time with a black girl, and Levinson fortunately, and realistically, subverts this cliched assumption, just as he does most others.

As for the Kurtzman clan, there is the strong sense that the boys won’t buy into all the blindered preconceptions of their ancestors, that they are the 1950s forerunners of the ’60s generation of young Jews who joined the civil rights movement and other forums of political activism. Fate ends up hitting the family harder than expected, dealing it a severe blow in its rather misguided quest for the American dream. Perhaps the film’s only important shortcoming is its ending, which would have been more powerful had a stronger early bond been established between Nate and his two sons.

Performances are outstanding and unshowy across the board. Brody emerges from the promise that he has long displayed with a very ingratiating central turn, while TV thesp Foster makes an outstanding bigscreen debut as his cautiously precocious younger brother. Mantegna provides keen insight into a man who carries himself with more outward dignity than his station in life would suggest, and Johnson sparkles as the very plausible object of Ben’s fascination.

Abundant period details provide ongoing delight, from the contrast between the Kurtzman boys’ colorful garb and the more somber and formal apparel of their parents to the fabulous re-creation of Baltimore’s now-gone center of black commercial life, Pennsylvania Avenue. Production designer Vincent Peranio has collaborated with Baltimore-based maverick John Waters for years, on the 1954-set pic “Cry-Baby” among many others, and has done a sensational job here. Also exceptional is the work of ace Aussie-born, Asian-based lenser Chris Doyle and editor Stu Linder, who helps keep all the narratives clear and propulsive. Mixed-mood score, which blends with nearly 40 pop tunes, reps the first feature work of Andrea Morricone, son of the celebrated Ennio.

Liberty Heights

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production. Produced by Barry Levinson, Paula Weinstein. Executive producer, Patrick McCormick. Directed, written by Barry Levinson.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Chris Doyle; editor, Stu Linder; music, Andrea Morricone; music supervisors, Joel Sill, Allan Mason; production designer, Vincent Peranio; art director, Alan E. Muraoka; set decorator, William A. Cimino; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Steve Cantamessa; supervising sound editor, Tim Holland; associate producers, Michael Haley, Amy Solan; assistant director, Haley; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Nov. 3, 1999. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 127 MIN.

With

Van Kurtzman - Adrien Brody Ben Kurtzman - Ben Foster Little Melvin - Orlando Jones Ada Kurtzman - Bebe Neuwirth Nate Kurtzman - Joe Mantegna Sylvia - Rebekah Johnson Yussel - David Krumholtz Charlie - Richard Kline Pete - Vincent Guastaferro Trey - Justin Chambers Dubbie - Carolyn Murphy Sylvia's Father - James Pickens Jr. Rose - Frania Rubinek Scribbles - Anthony Anderson Annie - Kiersten Warren Sheldon - Evan Neuman Alan - Kevin Sussman Murray - Gerry Rosenthal Louie - Charley Scalies
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