Barry Levinson knows Baltimore. The director grew up there, and the experiences of his home have become the foundation of his most personal, memorable work -- a trilogy of films that includes "Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon." Now add to that the funny, sad and moving "Liberty Heights," which presents a period in the city's history that has relevance to other areas of the country as well as to the present climate of racial and cultural division.
Levinson's almost autobiographical tale is set in 1954, when Americans fell in love with the automobile, James Brown and the all-night diner. Desegregation was a new concept, and public swimming pools were still allowed to post signs that read "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed."
The young heroes of "Liberty Heights" are Jews themselves -- high school senior Ben (Ben Foster) and college-age older brother Van (Adrien Brody). Their parents, numbers runner Nate (Joe Mantegna) and housewife Ada (Bebe Neuwirth), are loving and supportive, but times haven't changed enough for them to understand the humor of their youngest dressing up as Hitler for Halloween or the boy's real affection for a black student.
Events in the movie mirror the evolving era of Levinson's childhood. Ben and Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the first black student to be integrated into his school, strike up a close friendship that breaks through the usual stereotypes. He's enchanted by the sounds of soul music. She learns a thing or two about Frank Sinatra. Naturally, their relationship is frowned upon by both sets of parents. Sylvia's father is a doctor, but in the '50s, as well as the '90s, racial distinction is one thing. Class distinction is another.
Older brother Van also discovers the intricacies of separation. After attending a college party thrown on the gentile side of town, the student falls head over heels for beautiful, wealthy blonde Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy). Unfortunately, while he's stargazing, his Jewish friend receives a pummeling from a less-than-tolerant partygoer. Although they eventually meet, Van finds out there's more than meets the eye with his object of affection.
The final thread of the story involves the brothers' father, who also can't escape the era's limits. A new bet to increase his operation's profits turns sour, at which point Nate is indebted to small-time black hoodlum Little Melvin (Orlando Jones). The dynamics of their relationship, and their respective reputations on the streets of Baltimore, escalate into risky and ultimately dangerous territory.
Levinson captures all of these characters' interplay against a backdrop that perfectly embodies the mood and tone of the time and location. Chris Doyle's cinematography and the score by Andrea Morricone evoke a warm, nostalgic feeling that's also a bit sorrowful.
The balancing of tones, appropriate for the era that preceded the turbulent '60s, is further enhanced by the filmmakers' seamless way of editing the characters' stories along with the score and soundtrack. The songs in the movie act as characters themselves, spanning a rich array that includes tunes from Bill Haley, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole. Levinson uses these to cut back and forth between what's happening for different characters at the same moment, as well as shuffling other moments in time. It's a device that heightens the effect of the human drama and gives the movie a sense of epic scope.
There's a certain amount of innocence and ignorance with all of these characters. To his credit, Levinson never strains the tensions that play underneath the surface. At the big moment when the Jewish son and his black friend find themselves together at graduation with everyone watching, the subtlety of their final gesture reflects the honesty of their relationship. While some audiences may mistake it for a little matter in a long film that has no special effects, it's really another indication that Levinson has taken his time to craft a personal experience that expresses our country's differences, similarities and continued longings.
* MPAA rating: R, for crude language and sex-related material.
Adrien Brody: Van
Ben Foster: Ben
Orlando Jones: Little Melvin
Bebe Neuwirth: Ada
Joe Mantegna: Nate
A Warner Bros. Presentation. Director Barry Levinson. Writer Barry Levinson. Producers Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein. Director of Photography Chris Doyle. Production Designer Vincent Peranio. Editor Stu Linder. Costume Designer Gloria Gresham. Music Andrea Morricone. Music Supervisors Joel Sill and Allan Mason. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.