In Avalon, director Barry Levinson tells the story of how his Jewish-immigrant family arrived in Baltimore and encountered a brave new world of freedom, self-betterment, and TV sets — i.e., the American Dream. At the beginning of the movie, we hear the stern and loving patriarch Sam Krichinsky (Armin Mueller-Stahl) tell us, ”I came to America in 1914!” His heavily accented voice is breathless, almost childlike, and his mythical arrival at Baltimore Harbor is photographed as though he were entering a giant red-white-and-blue theme park where every day is the Fourth of July. The movie, which is about the passage of the Old World into the New, tells how those who came over from the peasant villages of Eastern Europe found the freedom of America both intoxicating and crazy, and how it was up to the next generation to make the place home.
Set mostly from the mid-’40s through the end of the ’50s, Avalon is a prequel to Levinson’s Diner (1982) and Tin Men (1987), and in some ways it’s the most personal of the three. The movie features an extended family of characters. In addition to Sam, there’s his wife, the imperious, guilt-tripping Eva (played by the great Joan Plowright); his three brothers (Lou Jacobi, Leo Fuchs, and Israel Rubinek), with whom he builds a successful wallpapering business; and his son Jules (Aidan Quinn), who becomes an eager salesman, opening a TV and appliance store with his cousin Izzy (Kevin Pollak) and keeping himself in hock, year after year, to expand the business. There’s also Jules’ cautious, devoted wife Ann (Elizabeth Perkins), who stands by his every gamble, and his son Michael (Elijah Wood) — the character who presumably grows up to become Barry Levinson.
The great thing about Diner was the way Levinson reclaimed an era that seemed drenched — buried — in nostalgia. For perhaps the first time, a movie cut through the mass-media images of the ’50s and showed us how the decade really felt (at least for teenagers). Avalon, by contrast, is a piece of celebratory wistfulness, a star-spangled ode to America the melting pot. Levinson is working so hard to give his cross-generational saga a universal appeal that the reminiscences, though affectionate and enjoyable, have a warmed-over quality, as though they were part of a TV series in the making. The film keeps cueing us to chuckle lovingly at characters such as Lou Jacobi’s Uncle Gabriel, with his paranoia that someone some Thanksgiving will ”cut the toiky” without him.
As Michael’s parents, Quinn and Perkins are believably humane and innocent, an old-fashioned couple courageously riding the waves of a world they didn’t make. And Mueller-Stahl is the crusty, loving patriarch of one’s dreams — though the movie would have been better had he not been put on such a pedestal. Seamless and as beautifully photographed as it is, Avalon is too self-consciously about Levinson’s reverence for his heritage and his reverence for his country. He doesn’t quite let either one speak for itself.
Yet the movie carries you along. Though some of the anecdotes are ho-hum, many are funny and moving. It’s a magical moment when the Krichinksy brothers’ ancient, tiny father steps off the boat, and when young Michael, inspired by the gloriously reckless fantasies he has seen in American B movies, lights trails of fire in the basement of his father’s store. And when Levinson leaves the older generation behind and concentrates on his immediate family, Avalon becomes suffused with the thrill and anxiety of young, postwar Americans approaching life in a way that’s so new it feels like science fiction. B+