Judy Berlin has the unmistakable characteristics of a Woody Allen film (though it's not one). Its cerebral humor, rash characters, and ensemble cast are gelled with a very Allenesque theme: that life has simply passed by the small, predominantly Jewish community of Babylon, Long Island. First time director Eric Mendelsohn, who reportedly worked with Allen on several films, shoots in black and white, and effectively paints a dreary reality for the people of the small suburb.
As the story goes, it is the second day of school and the fall is in full swing. David Gold (Aaron Harnick) has returned to his parent's home after spending time working in the film business in California. He runs into old high school classmate Judy Berlin (Edie Falco - from HBO's Oz and The Sopranos), an outspoken yet dimwitted aspiring actress on her way to Hollywood that very evening. The story follows their respective families as Judy and David spend the day reminiscing while a solar eclipse darkens the town.
The real substance of the film lies in its characters and the stellar cast. Barbara Barrie (Private Benjamin) plays Sue Berlin, Judy's mother, a stern schoolteacher who wears her problems in her forcefully stoic face. Madeline Kahn (Young Frankenstein) is Alice Gold, a recovering alcoholic who has alienated her son David and her husband Arthur (Bob Dishy). Best known for her comedic roles, Kahn (recently deceased) puts on an Oscar-worthy performance as a mother who has awakened from a mysterious slumber caused by the eclipse, discovering she is an embittered housewife with a dismal existence. Her portrayal exudes a sad sincerity with her nasal voice and methodical stroll, but manages to stay light and funny as Kahn weaves her magic. Finally, Julie Kavner (best known for her voice as Marge Simpson) adds an extra dose of laughter into the mix with some great one-liners.
Worthy of much praise is Mendelsohn, who manages to twist an average suburban town into a strange and majestic place filled with dark and unexpected imagery. The film is definitely "artsy" and heavily symbol-laden via the eclipse and the setting in "Babylon," a stark contrast from the thriving Biblical polis.
Despite its endearing qualities, the film has its flaws, especially the blaring harpsichord score, which serves as musical interlude. Also, I found the character of Judy Berlin to be too unbelievable -- everything from her zaniness to the railroad-looking "adult braces" she was wearing.
Overall, the film is a score for Mendelsohn, who should get plenty of opportunity to establish himself as tour de force director in Hollywood.