Judy Berlin
directed by Eric Mendelsohn
(Shooting Gallery, 1999)

The title is Judy Berlin, but I'm not really sure why writer/director Eric Mendelsohn picked that. Mendelsohn has focused his lens on a fairly unusual day in Long Island, with a twist of nature's power, but it's not really clear what he's trying to say. And some sharp performances by tried-and-true actors are thwarted by dialogue that tries a little too hard, and is a little too pleased with itself to seem spontaneous.

You can see, in short, where Mendelsohn's trying to aim with Judy Berlin. But that makes the gap between intent and result all the wider.

The plot is simply this: A group of about half a dozen Long Islanders, related to each other by blood or work or neighborhood, go about their daily lives on the second day of school, when a solar eclipse darkens the sky and gives their world a "time out of time" feel. There's David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a 30-ish actor who's come home to brood, failed career dreams in tow. His father, Arthur (Bob Dishy), is the local elementary school principal; his mother, Alice (Madeline Kahn), a housewife who finds it tough to cope day-to-day.

While walking the streets of town, David runs into classmate Judy Berlin (Edie Falco) -- or, rather, she runs into and over him. A brash Long-guy-land kind of woman, Judy's an aspiring actress who's heading off that night for California, fame and fortune.

At noon, the eclipse falls over town, and sticks around. Judy Berlin follows those characters, and Judy's teacher mother Sue (Barbara Barrie), as they talk, fall apart and struggle. In this town, Babylon, everyone's speaking what seems on the surface to be the same language, but everyone's shrouded, muddled, unclear. It's not a sad kind of thing, but a pervasive melancholy like the moods that only settle in at 3 a.m. Everyone's waiting on the cusp -- for the sun, for the arrival home from work, for a new beginning, for another chance.

Filmed in black and white, Judy Berlin has some beautiful cinematographic moments, but is too soft to be compared to great black and white films of years ago. It has some great dialogue, but can push home its points a little too eagerly. It has some fantastic performances, but the chemistry between David and Judy never really sparks. Where the spark is, is with the great Madeline Kahn. This was her last film; she died Dec. 3, 1999 from ovarian cancer. When Kahn is onscreen, her Alice Gold is a lonely masterpiece of a needy, wanting suburban woman, a quiet desperation dancing around her edges and an awareness of accumulated losses that's overwhelming.

Barrie, too, and Dishy are wonderful as Judy Berlin's alienated mother and the principal with whom she has a cat-and-mouse longing. So, frustrating as it is to watch Mendelsohn's homage to his hometown try and try and, sometimes, fall flat, the performances of these old pros make Judy Berlin a tribute to the resilience of love, of hope and of the sun.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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