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'Judy Berlin': A Bright Spot From Sundance

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2000


    'Judy Berlin' Edie Falco gives a luminous performance in director Eric Mendelsohn's first feature.
(The Shooting Gallery)
Finally an independent has emerged from the mediocrity of Sundance – where the buzz is always strong, the three-picture deals are good-looking and the entries are usually below average. It's called "Judy Berlin," and it's something to get excited about.

With this ascetically photographed black-and-white mood piece, writer-director Eric Mendelsohn proves a cut above the usual film festival graduates whose works rarely say more than, "Hey, I made my first movie!"

"Judy Berlin," his feature-length debut, which was the opening film for the New Directors/New Films festival in New York and won the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Direction, may resolve itself a little too cutely at the end. But by then, you're already entranced. This dark but delicate portrait of small town life is like an updated, Long Island version of "The Last Picture Show."

In Babylon, N.Y., Judy Berlin (Edie Falco), a woman in her early thirties, is buzzing around town, saying her goodbyes to friends and family. Full of hope and vigor, she's heading to Hollywood to make it as an actor. Just one more acting gig – an afternoon job as a 19th-century settler at a living history village – and she's off to The Coast.

While Judy prepares to escape from this stifling place, a former classmate is returning. David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a disconsolate artist-type, just back from a disappointing experience in Hollywood, has come to lick his wounds at his parents' house. He's also considering a possible documentary about Babylon.

And what a documentary that might be. As we come to find out, Babylon is a town full of missed connections, damaged dreams, lovelessness and even derangement. With an almost saintly compassion, the movie spends time with some half-dozen characters in town, quietly observing their unspoken desperation.

David's mother, Alice (the late Madeline Kahn), languishes in a dead-end marriage with Arthur (Bob Dishy), the long-suffering principal at the local elementary school. He can barely bring himself to smile at her. And she can feel the emotional barrenness in the air. It is a silent hell with plush carpeting.

Sue (Barbara Barrie), a teacher at Arthur's school and also Judy's mother, lives in a cocoon of misery. Her tart, wry observations make her colleagues uncomfortable. And she has suppressed passions for Arthur, who feels something in return but cannot allow himself to reciprocate. On this particular day, her class is disrupted when a retired teacher (Bette Henritze) with Alzheimer's disease shows up to take over.

A solar eclipse is due just after noon that day. Babylon is literally darkening by the minute. Everyone seems to be part of the walking dead, caught in a lifeless dream. The possibility of Judy and David crossing paths and altering their mutual destiny becomes the movie's only flicker of hope.

And yet, "Judy Berlin," shot in Plainview, Farmingdale and Old Bethpage on Long Island, is not downbeat. Falco, best known for her role in cable TV's "The Sopranos," turns in a wonderful performance. As Judy, who sports a mouthful of braces, she's an unending source of human light; you can feel the magic of her effect in David's gradual improvement in spirit.

Writer-director Mendelsohn has a light, often humorous touch. There's an amusingly uncomfortable encounter between David and a goofy old classmate – both of them standing on opposite train platforms. And when Judy and David do bump into each other, their conversations – thanks to Mendelsohn's writing and Falco's effervescent performance – are both charming and funny.

At one point, Judy makes a wistful comment about both of them being 32. But David points out that, although they were classmates, he's actually 30.

"That's right!" says Judy cheerfully. "You got skipped a grade and I got held back!"

One last note. In what has become her final film performance, Kahn is subtly radiant and fetchingly comic. She also utters the movie's most heartbreaking line – which I won't spoil – when she makes a shattering discovery about her husband. And as she walks along the dark, dark street in front of her home, almost woozy with addled liberation, her wonderful spirit has the makings of a great lasting memory.

JUDY BERLIN (Unrated, 94 minutes) – In black and white. Contains some obscenity.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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