Cast: Ben Foster, Adrien Brody, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna, Frania Rubinek, Rebekah Johnson (aka Jordan), James Pickens Jr., David Krumholtz, Carolyn Murphy, Justin Chambers, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson, Richard Kline, Vincent Guastaferro, Evan Neumann, Kevin Sussman, Shane West…
Written by: Barry Levinson
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Rated: R (though it seems like a PG-13 film)
Released: December 31, 1999 (U.S.)
Overall score: 6/10 (just being nitpicky)
Brody performance: 5/10
What I Didn’t Like
Adrien’s character, Sylvan “Van” Kurtzman straddles the line between romantic and creepy in dealing with a crush he’s formed on a beautiful blonde (model Carolyn Murphy in her only film role so far). He first saw her on Halloween, dressed as a fairy princess (he decides she’s Cinderella, but that’s debatable). Van broke the ice by asking if the magic wand she was holding granted wishes, which led to a flirty conversation culminating in a small kiss. Van is whisked away by his friends before he can get the mystery lady’s name, or any other information.
I can relate to the excitement of meeting a new person and forming an attachment — I think we all can. But Van goes a little overboard: questioning everyone who might possibly know who she is, aimlessly driving around the WASP part of town trying to find her, interrupting friends in crisis to talk about her… it wears thin at times. It’s not as though he does a bad job in this film (in fact, there are several scenes that are brilliant — such as the courtroom scene), it’s just that part of the story that I find irksome. Overall, though Van is a likeable character.
It does help to take into account that the 1950s are being depicted, here. It wasn’t exactly the most PC time in male-female relations. A scene where young men discuss Spanish Fly is a reminder of this.
What I Enjoyed
The main story is arguably Ben Kurtzman (an excellent Ben Foster) falling for one of his newly-integrated high school’s first black students, Sylvia (a charming Rebekah Johnson). Much to the dismay of both sets of parents. Both actors do an impressive job here. Sylvia is both shy and no-nonsense at the same time, which is a really good type of female character to see. Ben is what you would call sheltered (he basically grew up in a bubble where everyone was Jewish), so there’s a lot Sylvia teaches him about how “the other kind” lives. Both Ben and Sylvia are highly intelligent, and respectful of each other. It’s a lovely relationship.
Another relationship I really enjoyed was the one between Ada (Bebe Neuwirth) and Nate (Joe Mantegna) Kurtzman (Ben and Van’s parents). They are clearly still very much in love after many years together and have worked hard to create their life together. I loved that Nate is open with Ada about how he makes his living (running numbers and operating a burlesque house) – there’s no secret-keeping, no lying about whereabouts, no “don’t ask me about my business.” Ada and Nate are respectful and supportive of one another. There is none of the bickering and belittling we see so often in stories of couples who have been married a long time. It’s very refreshing.
Liberty Heights is an enjoyable step into the past. Many subjects are tackled in this story: love, friendship, family, education, race relations, antisemitism, sexual politics, gambling, kidnapping… even music and comedians. It covers quite the spectrum, while still maintaining its focus. Everything is seen through the eyes of this family. Everything unfolds as it relates to their lives. It’s a wonderful approach to storytelling and I really enjoyed it.