If more people followed Barry Levinson’s example and made art after taking issue with something I’ve written, Hollywood and my mailbox would both benefit. In recent interviews, the director has said his new film, Liberty Heights, emerged out of anger at comments he interpreted as anti-Semitic in my review of his ”Sphere” almost two years ago: I identified Dustin Hoffman’s character as a Jewish psychologist, observing that he was ”noodgey and menschlike.” I also called ”Sphere” a ”matzo ball,” and in this I was mistaken: Upon second viewing, I now realize it’s an overstuffed kreplach, and Levinson understandably had difficulty swallowing its box office failure.
Levinson was also uncomfortable, I think, that I called a character whose every mannerism is pop-cultural shorthand for Jewish a Jew. Why, he asked, couldn’t I say the shrink was just a…guy? In response, why, I ask, can’t the shrink also be known as a Jew?
In ”Liberty Heights,” Barry Levinson calls a Jew a Jew. And with the freedom borne of that unveiling, he flushes a whole lot of schmaltz out of his arteries.
The movie is set in Baltimore’s Jewish quarter in 1954, when an American kid safe from Europe’s still-recent Holocaust might think the whole world was Jewish — until he set foot out of his neighborhood, where the sign at a country club read ”No Jews, Dogs, or Coloreds Allowed.” Thus, as Ben Kurtzman (”Freaks and Geeks”’ Ben Foster) and his older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), venture away from the traditional table set by their mother (Bebe Neuwirth) and their burlesque-operating, numbers-running father (Joe Mantegna), they taste the possibilities of ”otherness.”
The transformational moments (as a menschlike psychologist might say) experienced by these liberty-seeking Jews are about as subtle as Mandy Patinkin’s renditions of Yiddish songs heard in the background. But Levinson’s passion to explain how he got from there to ”Sphere” gives ”Liberty Heights” its own farkatke Hollywood integrity. Mazel tov.