Director Barry Levinson (RAINMAN) goes back to his Jewish roots in Baltimore in the new movie LIBERTY HEIGHTS. Reminiscent of his first (and perhaps his best) movie, DINER, it nevertheless offers an ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience, with some disturbing ethnic stereotypes and lots of crude sexual language.
Young Ben is a high school senior in 1954 who finds himself attracted to a pretty black student, Sylvia, who now goes to his school because of new desegregation orders. Although Ben’s father takes the whole family to synagogue every Sabbath, the father earns his money running an illegal gambling operation. Not only that, but his father also runs the local burlesque house which acts as a front for the gambling. Meanwhile, Ben’s brother Van has become attracted to a beautiful rich gentile girl who, unknown to Van, is actually the girlfriend of the first gentile friend Van has found in college, a hard-drinking and hard-driving young man named Trey.
Ben’s father gets in a heap of trouble when a black pot dealer named Little Melvin bets an unheard-of $50 on the bonus number and wins. His father tries to placate Melvin with a piece of the business, but Melvin’s not satisfied, so he kidnaps Ben and Sylvia when they sneak out to a James Brown concert using the father’s identifiable green Cadillac. Melvin takes the gambling business away, but loses it back to Ben’s father when he doesn’t know how to run the business properly. The IRS learns about the business and Ben’s father goes to jail. Meanwhile, Van eventually finds out that the rich gentile girl has her own drinking problem, brought on by the separation between her mother and her father, who has a boyfriend on the side. The ending to this plot is left up in the air, however.
LIBERTY HEIGHTS is mildly entertaining, but it has a spiritual and moral emptiness at its center. First, the movie is filled with lots of crude sexual language, along with most of the usual R-rated foul language (but no “f” words). Secondly, director Levinson takes inordinate pleasure in showing the audience many gratuitous shots of strippers from the burlesque club wearing skimpy outfits and shaking their bodies. Furthermore, Ben’s father doesn’t seem to learn any lessons at all from his experiences with Melvin and the IRS. Although his family is shown sitting in synagogue, their religious faith is otherwise nonexistent. The movie’s basic attitude toward these things is basically one of acceptance.
All in all, this makes for a downbeat experience morally and spiritually, despite the movie’s politically correct messages about ethnic tolerance. Especially since Melvin’s character, and that of his right-hand man, seem to be a throwback to earlier stereotypes of black people. Melvin and his buddy in fact almost seem like the shifty, shuffling slave stereotype of yesteryear. Which makes one wonder what Levinson could possibly have been thinking when he filmed LIBERTY HEIGHTS.
(AbAb, B, LLL, V, S, NN, AA, D, MM) Anti-biblical, amoral look at nominal Jewish people in Baltimore in 1954-55, with some moral elements, especially regarding ethnic tolerance; 43 obscenities (no "f" words) & 20 profanities plus a few ethnic epithets & lots of crude sexual language; college men get into fistfight & black man with gun kidnaps & threatens teenagers; many crude sexual references plus teenager accidentally stains his pants with semen & main adult character runs burlesque house, where many women in revealing underwear shown performing; rear female nudity during one striptease scene & women in skimpy outfits; alcohol use & abuse; smoking; and, kidnapping, racial hatred, gambling, & striptease.
In LIBERTY HEIGHTS, young Ben is a high school senior in 1954 Baltimore who finds himself attracted to a pretty black student, Sylvia. Although Ben's father takes the whole family to synagogue every Sabbath, the father earns his money running an illegal gambling operation. When his father has trouble with his gambling business, in the form of a stereotypical black marijuana dealer, the two stories converge. Meanwhile, Ben's college-age brother falls in love with a rich beautiful gentile girl who has personal problems of her own.
Crude language about sex and body parts and multiple shots of semi-nude strippers at the father's burlesque club are just some of the problems with this mildly entertaining movie. Although Ben's family is shown sitting in synagogue, their religious faith is otherwise nonexistent. Meanwhile, neither Ben's father nor his brother seem to learn anything from the experiences they undergo in the movie. Hence, neither does the audience. Finally, despite the refined characters of Sylvia and her own father, the other black characters in the movie are offensive stereotypes meant to get cheap laughs. The movie's positive qualities are not enough to overcome these egregious errors in judgment.