Film: Mendelsohn’s memorable Judy Berlin

It’s hard to convey the essence of Judy Berlin (1999), though not the excited reactions it tends to generate. An American-made black-and-white feature written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn, Judy Berlin focuses on the intertwined lives and aspirations of a curious ensemble of characters (some Jewish) living in a Long Island commuter town called Babylon on the afternoon of a long, and increasingly surreal, solar eclipse.

Judy Berlin combines all the short-story sharpness of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone with the starkness of The Last Picture Show and the refreshing quirkiness of Fargo (without, however, any of the violence). Mendelsohn, a young Woody Allen-like auteur, honed his craft working as a minor technocrat on numerous of Allen’s flicks. Not surprisingly, this, his first feature film, lassoed the Best Director award at Sundance last season.

The cast sparkles. Edie Falco plays the eponymous lead, an aspiring actress about to leave for Hollywood; Aaron Harnick plays David Gold, a failed director having just returned from that same dream-town. Also adding lustre are Bob Dishy, Julie Kavner, Barbara Barrie, Anne Mera and Madeline Kahn in her final role as David’s mother.

As the eclipse transforms an ordinary sleepy day in Babylon, the strange light illuminates the lonely lives of its inhabitants in peculiar ways and turns the suburban vista into a dreamscape.
Experimental and exhilarating, Judy Berlin is a delightful and finely-rendered minimalist sketch that turns its back on the overblown demands of modern audiences for Hollywood-style plot formulations. It’s filled with unexpected moments, humour and inventiveness. Don’t even try to explain it: just enjoy it. ♦

© 2000