Writer-director Eric Mendelsohn’s debut film, set in the fictitious Long Island hamlet of Babylon, is a bittersweet love letter to suburbia, an ode to its manicured beauty and orderly lifestyle where everything – and everyone – has its place.
In an impassioned moment, David Gold (Aaron Harnick) tells Judy Berlin (Edie Falco) how he’d like to make a documentary about their hometown, something without the usual sneering irony, which would focus on the lovely little moments that define life in Babylon (whose grandiose name belies its status as another faceless stop on the Long Island Rail Road).
Even though Mendelsohn’s affection for this world is obvious, his outlook is more complex than David’s, who can’t see beyond his own misery. The 30-year-old filmmaker is in a major funk, and has returned to the sterile but comforting home of his parents. Jittery hausfrau Alice Gold (Madeline Kahn) talks incessantly, trying to fill the silence that defines her daily existence, while her calm, capable husband, Arthur (Bob Dishy), the elementary school principal, inspires confidence everywhere but in his own house.
Wandering around Babylon, the morose David unexpectedly encounters high school classmate Judy Berlin. With a mouth full of braces and a head full of dreams, the exuberant Judy is headed to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. David is immensely skeptical, but doesn’t realize the price Judy has had to pay for her relentless optimism. Judy was a disappointment to her demanding mother (Barbara Barrie), a teacher who envisioned a daughter who would discuss the New Yorker over dinner, not someone who would ever be left back a year in school.
Mendelsohn expertly moves from one story line to another as an extended solar eclipse literally turns day into night, appearing to swallow the bright autumn sunshine (the film’s black and white cinematography beautifully captures the eerie quality of this phenomenon).
Like Magnolia, Judy Berlin utilizes a pitch-perfect cast and is set during a single day. But Mendelsohn’s vision is ultimately both kinder and gentler. These lives may be dead-end, he asserts, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been wasted.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.