A sardonic yet adoring, antic allegory about a menagerie of neurotic Long Island oddballs following and/or abandoning their dreams, "Judy Berlin" is a strange little film that got left behind like a red-headed step child at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
Its creator Eric Mendelsohn won Best Director in Park City, but went home without a distribution deal -- which is the undeclared movie meat market's unspoken parting gift for award winners.
Then along came indie house Shooting Gallery, which has made this movie the flagship release for a touring series of six pictures the distributor feels went unfairly unnoticed during their festival tours.
Featuring a nearly unrecognizable, pre-"Sopranos" Edie Falco (mob wife Carmela on the hit HBO show) in the title role of a loquacious, geeky thirtysomthing with impractical dreams of movie stardom, "Berlin" is a kind of Woody Allen-meets-"American Beauty"-lite fable about suburban foibles and frustrations.
The catalyst for the story is the ignominious return of failed filmmaker David Gold (Aaron Harnick) to Babylon, the momentumless bedroom community where he grew up. On the day of an unnaturally long solar eclipse that gives the town an even dormant aura than usual, this sullen, rut-stuck fellow with grated nerves bumps into former classmate Judy on the street. Feeling otherwise dejected and ego-trampled, he latches on to her for the afternoon when she confesses having a crush on him in high school.
Although the film has a beginner feel to it, writer-director Mendelsohn adroitly creates a certain timelessness by shooting in black and white and making savvy technical use of his time-suspending daytime darkness with simple, eerie, single-source lighting. But mostly he exploits the day-for-night gimmick in getting his characters to let their hair down and wringing awkward moments for subtle comedy.
Stubbornly optimistic Judy, who plans the leave that same day for Hollywood, is clearly not starlet material, what with her braces, her accent and her WalMart clerk makeup. She's a terrible actress to boot, if any indications can be taken from her bogus enthusiasm for her day job as a pilgrim wife at a Colonial history tourist trap.
With his own futile experiences in L.A. fresh on his mind, melancholy David belittles her dreams even as he grasps pathetically at what he hopes is a romantic spark between them.
Mendelsohn's comedy is quaint, obsessive and ironic, and while the movie lacks real direction, it never wants for laughs. But most of that quaint irony comes from parallel stories that relate to David, Judy and each other only slightly, through family connections and the inexplicable eclipse.
Madeline Kahn (in her last role before succumbing to ovarian cancer) is delectably silly as David's overbearing Jewish mother, who is the weirdest housewife on her tree-lined drive and takes her housekeeper out for a "moon walk" when dusk falls at noon.
Barbara Barrie (Brooke Shields' mom on "Sudden Susan") is incredibly moving as Judy's estranged mother, a grade school teacher who has lost her joie de vivre. The eclipse awakens her dormant desire for the school principal (Bob Dishy).
Also great are Bette Benritze as a retired teacher with Alzheimer's disease and Julie Kavner (the voice of Marge on "The Simpsons") in a caustic cameo as the school's lunch lady.
Measured by it's sneak-attack laughs, "Judy Berlin" is a modest success. The movie is a gas as you watch it -- even the crustier critics at the preview screening laughed out loud and clapped a couple times -- but the effect doesn't linger any longer than it takes the credits to roll.