Not rated, 93 min. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn. Starring Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, Carolyn Glynn, Anne Meara, Julie Kavner, Madeline Kahn, Aaron Harnick, Bob Dishy, Bette Henritze, Novella Nelson.
“I always wanted to make a documentary about this town, about the paperboys, about the PTA ladies, but nothing sarcastic,” says failed filmmaker David Gold (Harnick) to Falco's Judy Berlin, a 32-year-old aspiring actress with considerably more dreams than talent. The town of which David speaks is Babylon, Long Island, a cozy-quiet suburban refuge that at first seems like some American non-place, the kind of burg you zip past on the interstate, never even realizing it's there at all. This is Mendelsohn's first feature film, and it's a gorgeously crafted love poem -- and a thoroughly unsarcastic one -- about the vagaries of suburban angst and the questionable aspirations of the human spirit. Shot in crisp black-and-white, Mendelsohn takes the high road, portraying his damaged, spiritless characters with a tender touch; it's about as far away from Hal Hartley as you can get, but the two share a common fondness for troubled Long Island denizens. Judy Berlin has been compared in the press to some of Woody Allen's films (Mendelsohn worked as an assistant costume designer on several Allen pictures) but that comparison is surface only. Mendelsohn's unflinching use of black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of director of photography Jeffrey Seckendorf) mirrors Allen's Manhattan, and maybe Stardust Memories, too, and the characters here are neurotic, but that's about all you can say. Mendelsohn's portraiture is far more sympathetic to the needs and non-passions of his characters than Allen has ever been. Take Judy's mother Sue (Barrie), for example, a chilly, perfectionist grade-school teacher estranged from her daughter's dreams, unwilling to let the dark sap of real emotion creep into her veins. There's also David's mother and father (Kahn and Dishy): She is a recovering alcoholic who's starved for affection from her family, and he is the school principal, waddling into late middle age with a perpetually disabused expression on his face. And then there's Judy herself, who's leaving on the LIRR to shoot for the Hollywood stars. (Falco, of HBO's The Sopranos is flat-out wonderful in the role.) At first, David, who is so wrapped up in his own depression over his Tinseltown failures that he can barely see 10 feet in front of him, more or less ignores this old high-school classmate, but as the film progresses he warms to her giddy goodwill, and by the end there's a genuinely touching farewell. The whole film takes place over the course of one day during which Babylon experiences a very lengthy solar eclipse. The significance of the darkened streets is unforced -- viewers can make up their own minds what it means, but once the sun vanishes, the characters' repressed emotions rocket to the fore. The whole set-up puts you in mind of some of Rod Serling's small-town Twilight Zone episodes (particularly The Monsters are Due on Maple Street); Judy Berlin has that weird, surreal 1961 chiaroscuro to it. One final note: This was Madeline Kahn's final film role, and she really is a wonder to behold. There's no comedy per se -- and that's how most people remember her -- but this is a role that cuts so much deeper, mining powerful emotional territory and giving the actress so much more room to spread her wings. It's a fitting and revelatory end to one of Hollywood's most brilliant careers.
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