Although he couldn't have known it at the time, growing up in Baltimore during the 1950s would prove to be filmmaker Barry Levinson's smartest career move. First in Diner, then in Tin Men, Avalon, and now Liberty Heights, he has drawn on the specific time, place, and culture of his youth and transformed it into an exploration — really, a celebration — of life in America.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing, but Levinson manages to strike just the right balance of humor, affection, and candor. In fact, the first three-fourths of this film is arguably the best work the writer/director (Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam) has ever done. A combination of wry observations, serious undertones, complex and engaging characters, and sparkling dialogue, Liberty Heights is anchored by wonderful performances from a trio of young actors: Adrien Brody, Ben Foster, and Rebekah Johnson, the last two making their feature debuts. A far-fetched subplot in the final quarter and the uncomfortably stereotypical character at its center damage the sense of realism that has carried the story thus far, but for most of its 127-minute running time, Liberty Heights maintains its ring of truth. Perhaps the film's chief virtue, like Diner and Avalon (but definitely not the inferior Tin Men) before it, is its ability to suggest a specific time and place while transcending both particulars to make a universal statement just about anybody can relate to, regardless of background.
The movie opens with 14-year-old Ben Kurtzman (Foster) and two friends standing outside a fenced-in swimming pool, staring past a sign that reads “No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed.” Welcome to Baltimore, 1954. In fact, welcome to much of America in the 1950s, when such disclaimers could routinely be found barring the entry to swimming pools, restaurants, and country clubs. Ben and his friends are Jewish and, like Levinson himself, grew up in a Jewish section of northwest Baltimore, called Liberty Heights in the movie.
But things were changing in America in the mid-1950s and those changes would have a huge impact on teenagers like Ben and his older brother Van (Brody). The Supreme Court had ordered the desegregation of schools and, for the first time, blacks and whites mingled in classrooms. Rock 'n' roll was just infiltrating the culture, crossing color, class, and religious lines, and giving teenagers a sense of common language and identity. And the availability and affordability of automobiles — a key component of the American dream — permitted people to leave their insular environments and discover other neighborhoods and different ways of life.
Each of these changes proves a key aspect of Liberty Heights, an ensemble piece about the Kurtzman family: Ben, Van, and their parents, Nate (Joe Mantegna) and Ada (Bebe Neuwirth). Ben becomes smitten with the school's first “Negro” student, the attractive and self-possessed Sylvia (Johnson). The two young people are separated not only by religion and ethnicity, but also by social class; Sylvia's father is a wealthy doctor and they live in an upscale neighborhood, while Ben's family struggles to hold on to its middle-class status. Despite the disapproval of both sets of parents, Ben and Sylvia find ways to spend time together. A whole new world opens up to Ben when Sylvia introduces him to black music and comedy.
Van, meanwhile, becomes infatuated with a blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty from an aristocratic gentile family, whom he meets when he and his friends crash a house party in an upscale, decidedly non-Jewish part of town. Despite the overt anti-Semitism on display, Van manages to make friends with both his Cinderella, Dubbie (supermodel Carolyn Murphy, a cross between Grace Kelly and Catherine Zeta-Jones), and her boyfriend, Trey (model Justin Chambers). The couple provide a valuable lesson for Van, who learns that physical perfection and a rarified upbringing are no guarantee of happiness. Trey is an especially contradictory character, and Chambers does an impressive job of communicating his complex nature.
Although Liberty Heights unfolds from the brothers' point of view (especially through the eyes of Ben, who is clearly Levinson's alter ego), the movie is also interested in the older generation and spends almost as much time on Nate as on his sons. At one point Van asks his mother, “How come we never talk about what Dad does?” Nate and his partners own a run-down burlesque house in a sleazy part of town; they run a numbers racket on the side. Much of Nate's story centers around the failing business and his run-in with a small-time black drug dealer named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), whom Nate and his partners try to cheat. Levinson isn't afraid to show the less attractive aspects of Nate's personality, but his presentation of the none-too-bright Little Melvin leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable. Both the character and the subplot he inhabits come off as an ill-advised — and unnecessary — attempt at comic relief.
Overall, however, Liberty Heights is a disarmingly funny, clear-eyed, and affectionate memory piece. Beautifully shot by Australian-born cinematographer Chris Doyle (best known for his sumptuously photographed Asian films, including Temptress Moon), the film presents a world in which even the most ordinary subject or location has a glossy, pristine appearance. The night scenes practically glisten, while every automobile in sight looks as though it just came off the assembly line. And what Baltimore-based Levinson film would be complete without a local diner? While not as central to the action as in Diner, Liberty Heights' Fells Point diner is where Ben, Van, and their friends hang out and discuss the changing world of the 1950s.