Memory Lane

Not a minute too soon, the floundering Barry Levinson ("Sleepers" and "Sphere") has returned to Baltimore, the inspiration for his best, most personal movies --"Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon." "Liberty Heights," a languorous, funny and lovingly detailed memory film, is set in 1954 in a Jewish suburb at a time when signs at a country club still announce baldly: NO JEWS, DOGS, OR COLOREDS ALLOWED. That would soon change. Integration is just around the corner, and white teenagers like Ben Kurtzman (Ben Foster), who can't keep his eyes off the only black girl (Rebekah Johnson) in his classroom, are about to discover the glories of Ray Charles and James Brown.

Ben is not the only member of the Kurtzman family dealing with what his mother calls "the other kind." His older brother, Van (Adrian Brody), becomes obsessed with a rich, blond shiksa goddess (Carolyn Murphy). Their father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), who always drives this year's Cadillac, doesn't buy it with the money he makes at his dying vaudeville theater but by running numbers. When a small-time drug dealer named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones) wins 100 grand on a number--more than Nate has--Kurtzman has to play dirty to stay afloat, with unexpected consequences for his family.

Fifties coming-of-age tales have become a cliche unto themselves, but Levinson's reverie feels handcrafted. By focusing on such a specific milieu, he keeps the genre alive with his great ear for small talk, an elegant eye and a warm, forgiving heart. This is nostalgia bottled and aged with care.