Liberty Heights (1999) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language, sexual situations and mild violence             
Running Time: 127 min.

Cast: Ben Foster, Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Orlando Jones, Rebekah Johnson, Bebe Neuwirth
Director:  Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson

Review published March 29, 2003

Liberty Heights marks the fourth time writer-director Barry Levinson has made a film set in his hometown of Baltimore (Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon are the others), and when you write about what you know, chances are you're right on target in the story.  It is another coming-of-age movie, not too dissimilar to many others that have been made before, with their ensemble casts and lack of a central core plot.  However, it is well-made and always interesting, and even if the film sometimes gets a bit too corny and sentimental about things for its own good, the heart is always in the right place.

Most of the film centers around two Jewish brothers, Ben and Van,  and their father, Nate.  Nate is owner of a local burlesque joint in Baltimore, but that's not the only vice he serves up, as he also has a number-running operation going, and one in which the payoff for one particular negro drug dealer is too large for Nate to pay off.  Meanwhile, Ben is living dangerously himself, in a racially-tinged atmosphere of anti-Semitism and bigotry, he has a thing for a Black classmate that he can't help but pursue.  Van has his own problems when he develops a crush on a local beauty, unaware that she is already attached to someone, and what's worse, her boyfriend is leading him on.  Life lessons are sure to be learned, but will it be too late for the family to be saved?

Liberty Park is an entertaining and thought-provoking drama that is made with the solid precision you'd expect from the experienced hand of Levinson.  The characters are well-rounded, the situations colorful, and the authentic look of the mid-50s scene is recreated with a knowing eye.  Although lacking a major name, the cast is still impressive, and most of them are well-suited to their roles and personalities.  My only exception to this might come from the inclusion of Orlando Jones as Little Melvin, the two-bit drug dealer, who seems too smart to play someone so uneducated, and too comical to think menacing when the situation calls for it. 

Although mostly played in a realistic fashion, there are some contrivances that do mar the overall impact of the story, most of them centering about the younger brother, Ben.  For instance, on Halloween, the Ben decides he wants to go out as Adolph Hitler, and if that weren't a sensational enough of a story contrivance to swallow, his costume is so elaborate that it doesn't seem right for the situation.  Then he has an emission while cavorting with his potential girlfriend that seems so out of place, it actually turns a what might have been touching scene into one of bewilderingly careless titillation.  Ben also has an annoying habit of insisting on listening to Frank Sinatra songs to the bitter end, and in one particular scene he is adamant to the point of idiocy, a clear misstep in Levinson's attempts to be cute with the character that leads to aggravation.

The finer qualities of the rest of the film do keep the story afloat, despite Levinson's tendency to overplay his hand, making Liberty Heights one of the better films of 1999.  Although the situations may seem a bit incredible at times, and there are some anachronistic elements that creep in, there is still a genuine feeling for the times that rings true, making this a coming-of-age story that fulfills its promise.  An overlooked gem worth a peek for fans of nostalgic drama.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo