Judy Berlin



US 2000 (made 1998)
director / script / editing : Eric Mendelsohn
cinematography : Jeffrey Seckendorf
stars : Aaron Harnick, Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, Madeline Kahn
93 minutes

Judy Berlin is an annoying, pretentious, but ultimately promising debut from writer-director Mendelsohn, a self-conscious attempt to combine aspects of David Lynch and, most of all, Woody Allen. One character even name-checks Annie Hall – another movie misleadingly named after its female lead while actually focussing on a nerdish male protagonist. Here Harnick is David, a youngish film director who’s fled Los Angeles to spend some time back home in Babylon, Long Island. He bumps into his childhood sweetheart, brash wannabe-actress Judy (Falco), who’s about to leave for California. Over the course of a single day we’re introduced to David’s kooky mother (Kahn) and his father, a headmaster at the local school where Judy’s brittle mother Sue (Barrie) teaches. Events take a surreal turn during a solar eclipse, which stretches on, impossibly, for hours and hours.

There’s a lot wrong with Judy Berlin – most of the characters are irritating, which one presumes is intentional, but Kahn and Falco are borderline unbearable: broad caricatures presented in an off-puttingly condescending manner. The script’s equally problematic, with numerous horrible scenes full of sub-Mamet ‘non-dialogue,’ emphasising the difficulty these people have communicating with each other. And there’s a grating self-consciousness about the whole enterprise – when David meets up with a pair of buffoonish high-school friends, they ask him if the eclipse is being staged for the benefit of his movie, and it’s referred to as “a metaphor for something.” Metaphor or not, it’s a crude kind of symbolism that doesn’t seem to actually mean anything – just like setting the movie in a fictional town called Babylon.

Most of these faults are classic symptoms of first-time-itis on the part of Mendelsohn, but his clumsiness is more than outweighef by the production’s two outstanding elements. Jeffrey Seckendorf’s black-and-white photography makes Judy Berlin compulsively watchable, even when the nebulous plotting makes you lose track of what’s happening and who these people are. It’s like flicking through a book of marvellous, atmospheric stills – there’s one especially luminous shot of Sue Berlin guiding a senile elderly ex-teacher home through the deserted streets.

When the movie was (finally) released in the US, there was some absurd talk of Madeline Kahn receiving a posthumous Best Supporting Actress nomination. There is a great performance in Judy Berlin, but it doesn’t come from Kahn. Barbara Barrie, previously best known for high-spirited, cuddly characters (she was nominated for Breaking Away, where she played the ditzy mother) is a revelation here. Ostensibly a sour-faced, tetchy depressive, Sue has, by the end of the picture, turned into the most human, sympathetic character on view, revealing layers of vulnerability as she comes to terms with her daughter’s extrovert ways – and, most movingly, with her own flinty coldness.

9th April, 2001