Judy Berlin (1999) – movie review

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Movie Review by Lisa Henshall

Starring: Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Madeline Kahn, Aaron Harnick
Director: Eric Mendelsohn

You can see the influences in this little gem of a movie by first time writer/director Eric Mendelsohn. He has, after all, worked with the great Woody Allen on several of his movies (ALICE, SHADOWS & FOG, HUSBANDS & WIVES, and BULLETS OVER BROADWAY), albeit as assistant to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland. JUDY BERLIN is a gently probing insight into a small community of middle-class America, with humour and pathos seamlessly interwoven. One critic has already commented that this is the kind of film Woody Allen would make if he had completed his therapy, and many a true word spoken in jest.

Filmed in black & white and set in the tiny community of Babylon, Long Island, the stories interweave over the course of one day, as a solar eclipse touches and changes the lives of the towns residents. The possible breakdown of the relationship between Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy), the local School Principal, and his wife Alice (Madeline Kahn – in her last role before her death earlier this year), a neurotic housewife who appears to be losing her marbles. Interlocking this is the stumbling flirtation between Arthur and one of his senior school teachers, Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie), playing the kind of stern disciplinarian, you’d expect to be far too sensible to indulge in such fancies.

Sue’s daughter, the titular, Judy Berlin (Edie Falco, of THE SOPRANOS fame), is leaving for the bright lights of Hollywood in the self-deluded belief that she can make it as a talented actress. She spends the morning saying farewell to friends and loved ones, and bumps into Arthur’s son David Gold (Aaron Harnick – real life son of Barbara Barrie), as he aimlessly wanders the streets trying to find meaning to his life. He has just returned from Hollywood, a failed film-maker, bitter from his experiences but too embarrassed to admit the truth, he pretends he’s back in town to make a documentary. There is a connection between the two characters as Judy admits she had a crush on David at school and they spend the day together reminiscing.

Mendelsohn’s script, gradually untangles the different elements of the characters lives, and we feel we know them a little better by the end, without ever feeling over-loaded with information. The acting is first class among all the leads, especially Madeline Kahn, who plays the slightly dizzy Alice with a loving touch, so we never pity her. At one point in the film David states that he always wanted to come back to Long Island and make a documentary about the place he grew up in, where he could showcase the characters and places he so fondly remembers. The film feels exactly like this, and you can’t help feeling that possibly Mendelsohn is ‘David’ and the film is autobiographical in nature. Perhaps in the recent past, his very own ‘Judy’ persuaded him to make that very documentary he’d always dreamed of and here we are watching it.

The film has been well received – Mendelsohn won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, and Edie Falco won an Emmy for ‘Best Actress’. The lighting & camera work is excellent, and the film doesn’t drag at anytime. The only irritation I felt was with the music between the scenes, which became quite grating after a while. But if you can ignore this, the film is a delight.

5 out of 6 stars