You cannot, apparently, take the Baltimore out of the boy with a lock wrench, and so Barry Levinson returns again, with Liberty Heights, to the fading metropolis he wistfully remembers from his youth. It’d be easy to flay him for his inexorable trips to this particular well—so much else about his career is craven and naive—but the truth is, Diner hums its middle-class/middle-century/Middle America tune better than any film of its decade, and Levinson’s Baltimore movies are by far his most watchable. He does get the details right, and Liberty Heights, which focuses on being Jewish and being a teenager in 1955 B-town, is rife with them; more time and attention is spent watching two kids listen to r&b records than on a gunpoint kidnapping. More so than Tin Men or Avalon, Liberty Heights is buoyant with quiet smiles and unpretentious fondness. Even racial politics, inherent in every scene, are treated as no more or less a sign of the times than the carpets, the kitchens, and the looming-cliff hairdos.
Too bad Levinson doesn’t trust himself to simply memoirize, because that’s when the movie is loveliest. Pacing and plotting are another matter: Scores of scenes are squandered for the sake of briskness (Levinson cuts from one thing to the next as if he’s late for a train; none of the many abbreviated scenes in a burlesque club amount to much), and the film becomes clogged in its last half by halfhearted crime melodrama. Still, Levinson dawdles enough to let some sweet and low-down things happen: wet-eared high schooler Ben (Ben Foster) contemplating a romance with a sublimely intelligent black girl (a magical Rebekah Johnson), big brother Van (Adrien Brody) trying to comprehend the motel-room meltdown of the ravishing blue-blood blonde (Carolyn Murphy) he’d pursued through the whole film, the familiar lallygagging around the diner and in period cars as all-American boys try to define themselves by talking trash about girls and obsessing on pop singers, etc. As the numbers-running dad, Joe Mantegna weighs in too heavily with his just-say-it mannerisms, and the yenta humor remains something Woody Allen once did and did better. But Levinson’s movie is inhabited, calm, and generous; if we can prevent another Sphere or Sleepers or Disclosure by doing so, let’s send him back to Baltimore for good.
**Nostalgia throbs through Toy Story 2, but in a stranger, more culturally charged way: The cross-marketed wisdom of stocking both films with toys more familiar to parents than kids whiplashes back, as the toys themselves know all too well their inevitable fates as landfill-destined junk discarded by distracted teenagers. As Woody (Tom Hanks) must struggle with the almost spiritual crisis of either enjoying the temporary bliss as a kid’s toy or opting for an eternity as a toy museum’s prized collectible (“Do you really think Andy’s gonna take you to college, or on his honeymoon?” somebody mercilessly asks), so we are thunderstruck with the scalding pathos of mournful collectible cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), long outgrown by her owner; her interlude, scored to a Sarah McLachlan ballad, is Brontë by way of action figures.
Even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) is awash with the pathetic but moving servility the toys hold as a principle of faith; prone in a kid’s oblivious grasp is the only way they “feel alive,” as Jessie says. Otherwise, the kitsch is back in full bloom—gotta love the grouchy Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and the discovery of the beach-blanket-bingo Barbie aisle. But look under the bed, where a forgotten Jessie spends years watching her human grow up, and the tragic spectacle of lost time burns brightly.