Judy Berlin

JUDY BERLIN. 1999

Author/Director: Eric Mendelsohn

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



Judy Berlin takes some patience getting into it, but it pays off. The first 45 minutes of this film are rather tedious. The black & white cinematography seems flat or inartistic. The actors although across the board first rate talents are stuck portraying unattractive, unappealing, unhappy people, most of whose lives revolve around the equally uninteresting elementary school, with lots of vignettes of character but no plot. There are times when it made me think, "This is the sort of film Woody Allen would make if he weren't particularly talented."

In the Long Island suburbs, renamed Babylon, the elementary school is preparing pin-hole cards so as to safely observe the eclipse that is to occur a little after noon. Three-fourths of an hour into the film the eclipse begins. In another fifteen minutes, as the depressed failures of the town try to pursue their pathetic lives as before, it becomes increasingly clear that this is no ordinary eclipse, but the sun seems actually to be gone.

Judy BerlinExceeding two hours in length, there's a great deal yet to happen, & it does continue to be merely about disruptive, dysfunctional, depressive lives. But now the film has taken on the feeling of a modern fable & becomes suprisingly beautiful.

The human misery is successfully poignant, & the choice of the flat black & white look of the film suitable after all, as though suburbia really were a place in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. The only thing that remains a problem with the film is the aggressively annoying harpsicord music that is never long absent from the soundtrack, which might as well be a circus caliope & Chinese cymbals it's so inappropriately raucus. The film's otherwise a gem.

A possibly suicidal young man (Aaron Harnick) pretty much lies in letting wannabe actress Judy Berlin (Edie Falco) believe he is making a movie. The self-deluded Judy decides she's going to become a movie star in Hollywood. A mentally unstable wife (Madeline Kahn in her final role) fears her husband has just left her, when her husband (Bob Dishy) gets a confused crush on a spinster school teacher (Barbara Berrie) who has had an awful epiphany about her own life & that of a recently retired teacher with alzheimers (Bette Henritze). All these big & little miseries become transcendent agonies that seem somehow to make the eternal eclipse explicable.

What at first seemed like Woody Allen without as much talent ended up seeming more like Woody Allen without the personal neuroses, misanthropic infantilism, deeply disturbed misogyny, insincerity, & egotism. Eric Mendelsohn will require a couple more films before we know for sure, but he may actually be the new genius on the American cinema scene.

Toward the end of these entertwining stories, we are shown little glimpses of hope for the majority of these unhappy people. Like, maybe that angry unhappy young man really will make his film. Maybe Judy will charm Hollywood as fully as she's finally charmed us. Maybe some of these people will begin to feel safe & loved. Hope is possibility without certainty, & as the tension builds, we keep wondering "Will the sun therefore return?" Will it?

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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