Judy Berlin

on February 25, 2000 by Ray Greene
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   Rumor has it that writer/director Eric Mendelsohn used to work for Woody Allen. True or not, he's certainly an avid Allen fan, as every frame of Mendelsohn's debut feature "Judy Berlin" attests.
   The idea seems to have been to shoot a small-town "Manhattan"--a gentle, suburban morality play to offset Allen's more famous urban one. "Judy Berlin" tracks one day in the life of the very Allenesque David Gold, a native son recently returned to the East Coast town of Babylon after failing to make it as a Hollywood filmmaker. Wandering the streets, David bumps into Judy Berlin, a girl he had a crush on in High School, who's preparing to leave for the Los Angeles David has only recently escaped, where she hopes to become a star.
   A freakishly long eclipse lends an eerie, dreamlike quality to Judy and David's time together. All over Babylon, other women and men hear the voice of the darkened moon, and are briefly liberated for brief but telling encounters built on longing, memory or remorse.
   Though Mendelsohn's heavy-handed symbol system (a town named Babylon, a hero named Gold, and that oh-so-metaphoric eclipse) might seem more in keeping with a straightforward allegory like "The Seventh Seal," "Judy Berlin" is in most ways a modest and affecting film. Working in lush black-and-white, cinematographer Jeffrey Seckendorf does a marvelous job of emulating Gordon Willis' groundbreaking "Manhattan" camerawork, with appreciably fewer resources on hand. As a writer/director, Mendelsohn has a real feel for the hidden currents that rage beneath the spare, tidy lines of modern suburban life.
   The real highlights of "Judy Berlin" are a brace of outstanding performances from a supporting cast of old pros, including Broadway diva Barbara Barrie as a small-town school teacher and comedienne Madeline Kahn as David's flighty but alienated mother. Kahn is especially heart-rending, capturing the gentle despair of an aging woman trapped in a loveless marriage with a quiet authority that those who know her only from her work in Mel Brooks comedies may be startled by.
   A uniquely literate and humane little art film, "Judy Berlin" is better Woody Allen than Woody himself has pulled off in close to 10 years. It's to be hoped Mendelsohn finds an audience for this first effort, because despite the Allen derivations, there are enough suggestions of originality in "Judy Berlin" to make a sympathetic viewer hope Mendel-sohn gets to make a second.    Starring Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy and Eddie Falco. Written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn. Produced by Rocco Caruso. Drama. No distributor set. Not yet rated. Running time: 97 min.
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