Liberty Heights [1999]

Genre: Drama, Music, Romance
When he's not crafting lavish Hollywood features like Rain Man, Bugsy, or the misbegotten Sphere, Barry Levinson occasionally makes highly personal films (the so-called "Baltimore series" of Diner, Tin Men, Avalon, and Liberty Heights). The latter, a 1999 release that disappeared all too soon from theaters, finds the aging Levinson working in a vein of pure memory: lyrical, mystical, forgiving. Ben Foster and Adrien Brody star as the middle-class Jewish sons of a shrewd burlesque operator (Joe Mantegna) running a petty numbers racket on the side. Set in the mid-'50s, the story finds the boys restless within the confines of their tight-knit community and unwilling to be restrained or rejected by anti-Semitic barriers or other racial and class prejudices. Before the film is over, the young men's pursuit of the unattainable will include a troubled WASP princess (Carolyn Murphy) to a remarkable African American girl (Rebekah Johnson) kept on her family's short tether. Levinson provides generous glimpses of a nation undergoing re-invention, from white discovery of rock & roll to racial integration in classrooms. There's lots of broad satire (Jewish shock at being fed something called "luncheon meat" by a Gentile friend), some delicate comedy of manners (a touchingly chaste relationship between two key characters), suspense (a kidnapping), and shattering passages of pure yearning. Levinson is in top form with Liberty Heights, his instincts acute, his skills at the service of beauty, his purpose clear. --Tom Keogh

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