By Merle Bertrand | April 21, 2000

Sometimes all you need is a little inspiration. For David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a despondent thirty-year old crashed and burnt filmmaker and LA refugee reduced to moping around his parents’ home all summer long, that inspiration strikes out of the blue in the form of the boisterous and attractive Judy Berlin (Edie Falco). Judy, not exactly a shrinking violet, and David bump into each other on the very day she’s leaving for LA to more seriously pursue her acting career. Not incidentally, she informs David in parting that she’d had a crush on him in high school. This is enough to motivate him to track her down where she works — a tacky and humiliating gig as a pioneer housewife at a historical village — and after an enjoyable day together, David’s in love. Meanwhile, Judy’s semi-estranged mother, prickly grade school teacher Sue Berlin (an excellent Barbara Barrie) is dealing with demons of her own. It’s the first day of school, which means the veteran teacher, adored by the children but barely tolerated by the faculty, faces another torturous school year in the presence of David’s father, principal Art Gold (Bob Dishy). Sue has a deep-seated and unrequited crush on her boss which is obvious to everyone but Art; himself merely going through the motions in his marriage to his relentlessly chipper wife Alice (Madeline Kahn, in her last film role). If folks act odd every month during a routine full moon, it’s no great leap to speculate that the day’s imminent solar eclipse will bring about some rather strange events. Just don’t expect any big Hollywood denouements in Eric Mendelsohn’s captivating suburban slice of life tale; no dramatic, instantaneously life-altering events or momentous happily-ever-after ending. That’s fine because such artifice wouldn’t at all fit this subtly nuanced, and thus incredibly resonant film. The characters in this black and white picture, beautifully photographed by Jeffrey Seckendorf, display so much emotional depth, so many moral shades of gray, that they generate all the color “Judy Berlin” could ever need. There’s simply not a weak performance in the bunch. Ironically, for all the familiar faces turning in solid performances, it’s an especially poignant subplot concerning Dolores (Bette Henritze), a retired, Alzheimer’s-stricken teacher who interweaves amongst the other characters in an almost wraithlike fashion, that is the most haunting. If new-agey record label Windham Hills were ever to consider branching off into film distribution, “Judy Berlin,” not as sappy as a Hallmark Film, would make a perfect release, as evidenced by Michæl Nicholas’ pretty piano score. Don’t cringe. In this case, that’s actually a compliment. All they need, as David would be the first to tell them, is a little inspiration.

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