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It's a Small, Small World

Photo by Clive Coote
DIRECTOR BARRY LEVINSON'S NEW PERIOD MOVIE TAKES place in a Baltimore neighborhood where the Cadillacs and the humanity gleam equally bright. It's 1954, the year of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the same year Joseph McCarthy and Willie Mays were each hard at bat. Ben, the film's narrator, and his friends Sheldon and Murray are Jewish kids who live in Liberty Hill and can't swim at the local private watering hole -- "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds allowed," reads a sign wired to the club's front gate. The boys entertain their own prejudices, mainly about the black kids being bused to their school, mostly about easy sex and prodigious genitalia, but since their world hasn't been rocked by James Brown, they don't yet know if their anxiety is deserved. They're white, kind of, but also mystified by those other whites, who don't go to temple. In one early, quick-sketch scene, the teenage Ben (played by Ben Foster) re-creates a visit to the home of an elementary school friend in which everything was too white, including the bread. "We cook ours," he had solemnly explained to his friend's puzzled mother.

Levinson shoots the scene with a nod to pulp director Don Siegel (though the high-gloss finish brings it closer to Pleasantville), turning Ben's alienation, and his teenager's overweening feel for the dramatic, into genuine comedy. In 1954 Baltimore, being Jewish sometimes means unwittingly taking a role in Invasion of the WASP People. That's funny, and it's as funny as the movie gets. Liberty Heights tells how Ben, his friends and his family learn to live with change, and since the movie was written as well as directed by Levinson, most of the changes are good, most of the people are good, and most of the jokes are pretty good, too. But not far into the story, Levinson dumps his sense of the absurd and begins telling the Barry Levinson story in earnest. Out goes Don Siegel, in comes Stanley Kramer -- The Defiant Jewish Ones, Guess Which Jew Is Coming to Dinner, with a little It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Jewish World tossed in every so often to lighten the load. A lot here is genially entertaining, but it doesn't make for interesting or vital filmmaking, because while Levinson might honestly prefer rye, he makes movies the way Wonder Bread bakes.

Liberty Heights is the director's fourth feature set in Baltimore, and his funniest, loosest film in years. But while it's less smug than Diner, less self-important than Avalon, it's also a Levinson picture, from the wall-to-wall pop to the packaged human relations and self-righteous liberalism. Levinson's politics always seem to be in the right place, but there's something too neat about the worlds he creates, something composed, phony. This movie was conceived after he read what he thought was an anti-Semitic review of another one of his features, and it has the chewed-over texture of a lesson plan rather than the vigor and abandon of a lived-in story. He's so eager to score political points that he advances his characters like chess pieces; nobody lives and loves like real people, only the way Levinson thinks they should. WASPs aren't really prejudiced against Jews; they're just desperate and soul-heavy, the kind of gin-soaked purebreds John Cheever wrote about. The stolid black doctor is a separatist, but his houseful of Danish modern makes it clear he's also a man of the world. For her part, Ben's black love interest, Sylvia, isn't just pretty and smart, she's so nice -- so insistently different from the racy girls Ben's friends dream of -- that she's the most boring character in the movie, Sidney Poitier in bobby socks.

The only character who doesn't fit into Levinson's humanism is, perversely, the most offensive, a black drug dealer named Little Melvin, who as written and often directed wouldn't seem too out of place perched atop some telephone wires in Dumbo. But it's the actor who plays Little Melvin, Orlando Jones, not the filmmaker, who rescues the character from caricature, with glints of cunning and vulnerability not always evident in his dialogue. With Little Melvin, Levinson is evidently attempting to conjure up a black menace along the same memorable lines as Mouse, the murderous Walter Mosley character brought to wild-eyed life by Don Cheadle in the screen version of Devil in a Blue Dress. But it's never clear to what end. Little Melvin is on hand just to stir up trouble, and since Levinson only knows the character from the outside in -- the flash, the jive, the madness -- there's no real sense of his soul, or the deep history beyond the façade. That Little Melvin is the single bad guy in the movie, as well as its most fully fleshed-out black man, is one lesson in Liberty Heights that's not remotely worth learning.

SLEEPY AND HOLLOW INDEED. TIM BURTON HAS A GIFT FOR creating creepy, crawly, dark little worlds on very big budgets, and while they're often sealed as tight as those fashioned by Barry Levinson, they're generally more thrillingly rich in possibility. Or, at least, more resourceful. Based on the Washington Irving story, Sleepy Hollow was adapted by Andrew Kevin Walker, a screenwriter with a tin ear for dialogue and a baffling inability to grasp the simplest dramatic concepts. Early on in the film, Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is introduced as a man of science, and seen carefully, even tenderly, handling various gadgets equipped with hinges and lenses and odd spindly rods that look like spiders' legs. It's a wonderful opening into Crane (here a police inspector instead of a schoolteacher), and Depp gives the moment just the right balance of the sweet and the strange, cradling the instruments as if they were newly hatched chicks. (Later, in front of an audience of skeptics, he adjusts a magnifying mechanism to the front of his face as if donning a warrior knight's mask, but the distorting lens gives him the gently comic look of an enormous bug.)

Crane has been sent from New York City to the New England town of Sleepy Hollow to capture whoever's been lopping off local heads like carrot tops. The inspector arrives with both his reason and his implements safely intact, but before long, as with so much in this film, the idea that he's in any way a man of science soon disappears, lost in the mists of Walker's undernourished sense of story and Burton's invariably distracted imagination. Outside of Depp, whose enduring ability to wrest poetry from even the most meager prose remains its own essential mystery, there's not much to hang on to in Sleepy Hollow -- heads may roll, but the movie barely moves. Never strong on narrative to begin with, Burton seems particularly uninterested in this story, which may be why he so casually squanders Christina Ricci's native spookiness and all but ignores her character's relationship with Crane, instead repeatedly, almost fetishistically, cutting to character actor (and girlfriend) Lisa Marie twirling away in flashback. (In a sure sign of directorial malaise, Burton riffs on a scene from Mario Bava's Black Sunday with more fond attention than he does much of his own movie.) There's so little going on with either the film's story or its characters, however, that there is plenty of time to get lost in cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's eerily beautiful visuals. He's drained most of the color out of the images, but unlike Burton, he's done so on purpose.

LIBERTY HEIGHTS | Written and directed by BARRY LEVINSON | Produced by LEVINSON and PAULA WEINSTEIN | Released by Warner Bros. | At AMC, Century 14

SLEEPY HOLLOW | Directed by TIM BURTON | Written by ANDREW KEVIN WALKER | Produced by SCOTT RUDIN and ADAM SCHROEDER | Released by Paramount | Citywide


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