I believe Thomas Wolfe's travel agent said it first: "You can't go home again and again." And yet here's Barry Levinson returning to his home town for the fourth time in 18 years. What used to be called his Baltimore trilogy--Diner, Tin Men and Avalon--has expanded into a tetralogy with the arrival of Liberty Heights, Levinson's movie about what it was like to be young and Jewish at a time (the mid-'50s) when the local country club still had a sign that said "No Jews, Dogs or Coloreds Allowed." Though it borrows from each of the first three, Liberty Heights stakes out its own territory in the well-trod fields of race, class and religion. And what it shows us is that with integration came disintegration--the disappearance of a whole way of life. Not that either of the Kurtzman boys has a problem with that. Rosa Parks has barely stepped off the bus before Ben (Ben Foster) is sidling up to the one black girl in his class, a doctor's daughter named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson). Meanwhile, Ben's older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), has developed a crush on a shiksa goddess (Carolyn Murphy). When Mrs. Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) gets even a hint of what's going on, she becomes verklempt. As for Mr. Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna), he's a little too busy running the local numbers racket. Like "The Sopranos," Liberty Heights has a familial feeling for crime: What's important about Dad, who owns a fading burlesque house as a cover, is that he's a good provider.
Levinson may be trying to accomplish too much--the one-big-happy-family dynamics of Avalon, the shady business practices of Tin Men, the shootin'-the-bull sessions of Diner. And there's an unfortunate plot development when a drug dealer named Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), who's black, kidnaps Ben and Sylvia to settle a score with Ben's father. Why is Little Melvin treated like a pariah and Mr. Kurtzman treated like an upstanding member of the community? A good question in a movie that otherwise tries to be sensitive to the various boundaries separating Baltimore's inhabitants from one another--boundaries that were being blurred in the '50s like never before. Liberty Heights doesn't quite feel lived in, but it's a nice place to visit.