Liberty Heights

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Liberty Heights

Director Barry Levinson had the misfortune of starting out with his best and most personal film, 1982's Diner, then settling into a mostly anticlimactic career, with an even split of successes (The Natural, Rain Man, Bugsy) and severe disappointments (Toys, Jimmy Hollywood, Sphere). Liberty Heights marks a welcome return home to Baltimore, the site of his fine comedy Tin Men and his groundbreaking TV series Homicide: Life On The Street, but it's not quite a return to form. Though drenched in flavorful mid-'50s nostalgia, the seriocomic memoir carefully delineates the racial and ethnic tensions dividing the city, touching on a vein of American anti-Semitism rarely addressed in Hollywood studio projects. With more humor and urgency than he's shown in years, Levinson focuses on the myopic universe of Ben Foster, an affable teenager raised in an all-Jewish neighborhood, blissfully unaware of his marginalized status. But when integration softens Baltimore's tacit borders, Foster and brother Adrien Brody venture into new territory, pursuing their interests in a lone black classmate (Rebekah Johnson) and a wealthy blonde WASP (Carolyn Murphy), respectively. All this is to the chagrin of their old-fashioned parents, Bebe Neuwirth and Joe Mantegna, who also get swept up in the changing times when his illegal numbers racket falls into the hands of small-time black dealer Orlando Jones. Fueled by Levinson's memories of the period, Liberty Heights intermittently recaptures Diner's funny, detailed exchanges and vivid rites of passage, particularly in its solid first half. But with enough didactic subplots to fill several movies, the script is eventually seized by predictable developments, most linked to Levinson's humane but falsely rose-colored worldview. Liberty Heights promises a more piercing look at Jewish America in a difficult transitional stage, but in the rush to a comforting resolution, its history seems conspicuously sugarcoated.