Friday February 25, 2000
Eric Mendelsohn's "Judy Berlin" is a comedy of the most delicately balanced perfection, rueful yet radiant, every moment calibrated with exquisite precision for just the right effect. And yet it never seems less than spontaneous.
It is a film permeated with the feeling that its maker knows exactly where he's headed, all the while overflowing with a sense of revelation. It's as if this first-time feature director confidently allowed himself to discover his film's meaning as he went along, resulting in a freshness, perceptiveness and tenderness that can only be described as extraordinary.
It's the second day of school in the pleasant town of Babylon, Long Island. Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy), principal of the local elementary school, is off to work, leaving behind his wife Alice (the late Madeline Kahn), a woman who seems to be in a constant state of apprehension in the face of a fairly empty existence, and their 30-year-old son David (Aaron Harnick), recently returned from his failure to make it as a filmmaker in Hollywood and who is overcome with a depressed indifference. As we meet one Babylon resident after another, we discover that most of them seem to be living lives of quiet desperation as an eclipse of the sun looms; it is to occur shortly before 1 p.m.
As the sky darkens, David runs into a former high school classmate, Judy Berlin ("The Sopranos' " Emmy-winning Edie Falco) and experiences his first sense of connection with another human being since he returned home. Judy is his polar opposite, a struggling actress of such boundless, bubbling optimism, despite no significant accomplishments, that later on this day she is to fly off to Hollywood. She wants to try her luck in movies and TV despite a singularly paltry resume, the high point of which may be her appearance in a commercial for a local furniture store.
David receives such a lift from their encounter that he decides to follow her to a nearby historic village, the local Williamsburg, where she's winding up her part-time job costumed as an early Colonial, depicting what women's lot was in that period. David is as beguiled by Judy's effervescence as he is ultimately alarmed by her naivete, his feeling that she's a lamb about to throw herself to the wolves, heading to a ruthless town where she has not a prayer of making it.
The great thing about "Judy Berlin" is that Mendelsohn doesn't treat the mysteriously prolonged eclipse as a time of doom or of magic--as Alice, in wandering about her neighborhood, would like it to be--but rather an interlude just enough out of the ordinary to spin the Babylonians out of their routines, to be open to new emotions and experiences. Under the spell of darkness, for example, Judy's schoolteacher mother Sue (Barbara Barrie), a brittle woman of superior intelligence but not a lot of warmth, at last dares to declare an unrequited love. Mendelsohn isn't concocting miracles that transform lives. But Mendelsohn is suggesting, modestly, how people might get a new and possibly redemptive perspective on their lives if they leave themselves open to opportunities.
Mendelsohn views his film's inhabitants with tremendous affection and respects their fears and frustrations in dealing with everyday life. He sees the humor in the absurdity of the human condition but never at the individual's expense. In celebrating a buoyant spirit in the face of despair, Mendelsohn has two key accomplices: cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf, who creates a poetically darkening world in black-and-white, and composer Michael Nicholas, who counters this vision with a tinkly, upbeat score.
No one actor can be singled out from this dazzling ensemble, which includes Anne Meara and Julie Kavner as a pair of gossipy workers at Arthur Gold's school and Bette Henritze as a retired teacher slipping into a senile dementia. There is so much pure joy and so much confused anguish in Henritze's Dolores Engler that she could be said to epitomize the spirit of "Judy Berlin." That is, to warmly embrace that chronic state of contradictory feelings weall seem to be forever sorting out.
"Judy Berlin" marks an auspicious launch for a joint venture of the independent film company the Shooting Gallery with Loews Cineplex Entertainment, to present a 12-week series of six venturesome films in 17 markets, with the Cineplex Fairfax serving as the Los Angeles showcase.
Judy Berlin, 2000. Unrated. The Shooting Gallery presents a Caruso/Mendelsohn production. Writer-director-editor Eric Mendelsohn. Producer Rocco Caruso. Cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf. Music Michael Nicholas. Costumes Sue Gandy. Production designer Charlie Kulsziski. Art director Dina Varano. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Dolores Heredia as Esperanza. Fernando Torre Lapham as Padre Salvador. Demian Bichir as Cacomixtle. Alberto Estrella as Angel. Eric Schaeffer as Wirey Spindell. Eric Mabius as Wirey at 17. Callie Thorne as Tabatha. Samantha Buck as Samantha. Sophia-Adella Hernandez as Belle Alvarado. Eduardo Yan~ez as Mario Rodriguez. Tony Plana as Chuck Alvarado. William McNamara as Michael DeMarco. Maria Conchita Alonso as Carmen Alvarado. Paul Winfield as Ron Regent. Liam Neeson as Charlie. Oliver Platt as Fulvio Nesstra. Jose Zuniga as Fidel Vaillar. Michael Delorenzo as Estuvio. Andy Lauer as Jason Cane. Richard Schiff as Elliott. Paul Ben-Victor as Howard. Gregg Daniel as Jonathan. Ben Weber as Mark. Sandra Bullock as Judy Tipp. Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott. Courteney Cox Arquette as Gale Weathers. David Arquette as Dewey Riley. Parker Posey as Jennifer Jolie. Bernadette Lafont as Jane. Lucile Saint-Simon as Rita. Clothilde Joano as Jacqueline. Stephane Audran as Ginette. Mark Webber as Hal Brandston. Zena Grey as Natalie Brandston. Chevy Chase as Tom Brandston. Schuyler Fisk as Lane Leonard. Emmanuelle Chriqui as Claire Bonner. Jean Smart as Laura Brandston. Chris Elliott as Snowplowman. Leonardo DiCaprio as Richard. Tilda Swinton as Sal. Virginie Ledoyen as Francoise. Guillaume Canet as Etienne. Robert Carlyle as Daffy. Vin Diesel as Riddick. Radha Mitchell as Fry. Cole Hauser as Johns. Keith David as Imam. Giovanni Ribisi as Seth. Vin Diesel as Chris. Nia Long as Abby. Nicky Katt as Greg. Scott Caan as Richie. Ron Rifkin as Seth's Father. Ben Affleck as Jim Young. Wei Minzhi as Wei Minzhi. Zhang Huike as Zhang Huike. Tian Zhenda as Mayor Tian. Gao Enman as Teacher Gao. Meg Ryan as Eve. Diane Keaton as Georgia. Lisa Kudrow as Maddy. Walther Matthau as Lou. Bruce Willis as Jimmy Tudeski. Matthew Perry as Oz Oseransky. Rosanna Arquette as Sophie. Michael Clarke Duncan as Frankie Figgs. Natasha Henstridge as Cynthia. Amanda Peet as Jill. Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp. Tobey Maguire as James Leer. Frances McDormand as Sara Gaskell. Katie Holmes as Hannah Green. Rip Torn as Q. Robert Downey Jr. as Terry Crabtree. Aaron Harnick as David Gold. Edie Falco as Judy Berlin. Madeline Kahn as Alice Gold. Bob Dishy as Arthur Gold. Barbara Barrie as Sue Berlin. Bette Henritze as Dolores Engler.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun