One year in the life of a Jewish family in '50s Baltimore, as the dad runs into increasingly deep trouble with his burlesque business, and his two sons discover the opposite sex.
Barry Levinson's hometown fascination continues apace with this sporadically successful, semi-autobiographical slice-of-life from '50s Baltimore. Liberty Heights is every inch a small, personal project - albeit one whose length and content have just the faintest whiff of self-indulgence. Which is a shame, as somewhere inside this multi-layered, two-hour soap opera is a decent little 100-minute picture.
Not that it's all bad news. The ensemble cast is excellent, with newcomers Foster and Johnson making an attractive central couple, and Brody once again proving his worth as one of the brightest young actors around. Levinson sensibly places the focus of the film on the friendship between Foster's Jewish white boy and Johnson's black student, and it's the consequences of their innocent relationship which illustrate the nature of the times far better than any of the period trimmings or the rock 'n'roll soundtrack, and shows just how recently attitudes have changed towards a mixed-race society.
However, Mantegna's role as the boys' father - a strip-club owner who becomes involved in some dodgy dealings - is far too thinly plotted, and spun out to breaking point; and it's this which badly lets the film down. In attempting to turn it into some kind of ineffectual gangster flick, Levinson strips the movie of much of its charm, and sacrifices some of the more potentially interesting characters.
The film isn't without its moments, and benefits from a scattering of clever one-liners - Foster's attempts to go to a Hallowe'en party dressed as Hitler provides a comic highpoint - but its lack of structure and rambling narrative leave it wanting.
While it's by no means terrible, with enough decent acting and engaging moments, we've seen this coming-of-age stuff a million times before, and this adds nothing new to the genre. With a little judicious pruning and a tighter story, this could have ranked higher.