Liberty Heights Review
By Robert Strohmeyer
Liberty Heights is a coming of age story, a comedic drama about two brothers growing up Jewish in Baltimore in the mid-1950's. Against the tumultuous backdrop of McCarthyism and racial integration, Van (Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster) Kurzman, together with their parents, Nate (Joe Mantegna) and Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) face the daily trials of social, religious and racial discrimination.
Those familiar with Barry Levinson's other works, such as Diner and Tin Men, may find Liberty Heights disappointing. This picture strives to project a social consciousness but falls tragically short of the mark set in 1990 by Levinson's Academy Award-nominated Avalon. The powerful subject matter Liberty Heights attempts to address is never fully pursued, quickly falling away behind a glut of gimmicky coming-of-age scenes lacking both in sincerity and originality. At times the characters are so stereotypical, they border on offensive.
The real weakness of this picture is the dialogue, which is so lacking in subtlety as to leave nothing for the audience to wonder at. Even when the characters do find a finer point to talk about, they just can't resist beating it over the head with a mallet. Most of the time, though, they aren't given this chance. The younger brother's friend Sheldon (Evan Neumann), for instance, has few lines that aren't related to genitalia and fewer still that suggest there may be a human being behind those words.
Fortunately for audiences, the cast of Liberty Heights delivers a powerful performance that brings life and compassion to these otherwise stock characters. Joe Mantegna is surprisingly believable as well-meaning racketeer Nate Kurzman, imbuing the role with sensitivity and charm. Adrien Brody and Ben Foster are charismatic and compelling as the two brothers, and Bebe Neuwirth's performance lends a refreshing vulnerability to the family. But the real gem here is Rebekah Johnson, making her feature film debut as Sylvia. Together with James Pickens Jr., who plays Sylvia's father, she creates what may be the film's most memorable scene as Ben hides out in the bedroom closet.
There are a lot of funny scenes in Liberty Heights and at times the drama is successful, but overall this movie just doesn't live up to its aims. If you're looking for a cute coming of age story, you may enjoy Liberty Heights. But if what you want is a compelling social drama, you may do well to look elsewhere. I'm giving this one three stars.
It's not polite to point.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Wednesday 17th November 1999
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Baltimore Spring Creek Pictures, Warner Bros.
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 6
Cast & Crew
Starring: Adrien Brody as Van Kurtzman, Ben Foster as Ben Kurtzman, Orlando Jones as Little Melvin, Bebe Neuwirth as Ada Kurtzman, Joe Mantegna as Nate Kurtzman, David Krumholtz as Yussel, Richard Kline as Charlie, Nate's Assistant, Vincent Guastaferro as Pete, Nate's Assistant, Justin Chambers as Trey Tobelseted, Carolyn Murphy as Dubbie the Blonde, James Pickens Jr. as Sylvia's Father, Frania Rubinek as Grandma Rose, Anthony Anderson as Scribbles, Kiersten Warren as Annie the Stripper, Rebekah Johnson as Sylvia