Judy Berlin

-

Judy Berlin

Fate has been kind to writer-director Eric Mendelsohn's first feature. Not only was Judy Berlin one of the audience favorites at Sundance '99, where he won a Best Director award, but the profile of his film's ostensible star Edie Falco has risen considerably since then. Granted, fans of The Sopranos might not recognize the Mafia housewife as a giddy would-be actress with a mouthful of braces, but they'll certainly recognize a good actor when they see one. In fact, the greatest coup of Mendelsohn's essentially plotless film may be in the casting: Judy Berlin is filled with well-knowns and semi-knowns (a spooky final performance by Madeline Kahn as a mentally unstable housewife, a cameo from Julie Kavner, vets Barbara Barrie and Bob Dishy), all of whom do a good job balancing naturalism with theatricality. As for the film itself, at times it recalls David Lynch directing an Arthur Miller script. Unfortunately, at others it resembles just another low-budget, grainy, black-and-white debut, with all the awkward semi-autobiographical clichés left intact. Still, in terms of style and mood, Judy Berlin has a lot going for it. Set on Long Island during a solar eclipse that lasts a little too long for comfort, Judy Berlin captures the casual intersection of human lives as they wander about in the semi-darkness. Aaron Harnick, a 30-year-old failed filmmaker, returns home, where he bumps into former classmate Falco, who's about to head out to Hollywood for that mythical big break. Meanwhile, Harnick's father (Dishy), an elementary-school principal, contemplates an affair with teacher Barrie (Falco's mother), while Dishy's wife (Kahn) roams the streets in a state of dementia. Mendelsohn depicts Babylon, New York, as nearly all ghostly shadows, enhancing the theme of fleeting youth, but he also pays special attention to the specific sounds of the neighborhood, from passing trains to humming street lights to birds, which chirp like it's midday even though the town is cast in darkness. Details like these make Judy Berlin haunting even in light of its self-consciously clunky moments.