Laced with existentialist wit à la Manhattan-period Woody Allen, observed with the emotional morbidity of Twin Peaks-era David Lynch, and set in the suburban vacuum of a Long Island 'burb called Babylon, Eric Mendelsohn's ennui-soaked sort-of comedy Judy Berlin is a strange little hybrid.
Just before a freakish total eclipse of the sun, we meet miserably lonely teacher Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie). Sue can't connect with her perky but deluded daughter, Judy (The Sopranos' Edie Falco). Judy runs into and sort of falls for her high school almost-sweetheart David (Aaron Harnick), who still lives with his utterly miserable parentsArthur (Bob Dishy), who's smitten with Sue, and Alice (the late Madeline Kahn), who spends the movie alternating between some sort of midlife semi-coma and a heartbreaking awareness of her going-nowhere existence. Then the eclipse hits the fan and the movie becomes a sort of Borscht Belt Waiting for Godot, as characters wander the eerily deserted streets of Babylon in search of last-chance epiphanies.
Obviously, we're not talking Plot City here. But Berlin does evoke a spooky, hypnotic trance state that subs well for story. And although it shares the bubbling-under suburban-malaise themes of American Beauty, Berlin is far more scenically strange: Judy dons full costume for Civil War-era re-enactments; an elderly woman stands on her front lawn like a brain-locked pink flamingo; people yell conversations from across vast train-stop expanses without a second thought. In one truly Lynchian moment, Mendelsohn's camera floats from a living room where Alice and Arthur are arguing and down through the floor, where it lingers for a while on the house's literally shaky foundations.
Besides Kahn's alternately hilarious/shattering performance, there's a fabulous series of comic duets between Anne Meara and Julie Kavnerplaying, respectively, a school administrator and a cranky nurseto help steer the film off the path of overbearing pretension. And Jeffrey Seckendorf's minimalist black-and-white cinematographyespecially post-eclipseis a moody eye-candy marvel.
The only problem here is Mendelsohn's reluctance to either plant his film in one of the creepier stretches of terra firma or go whole-hog with his oft-weird intentions. The result is that Judy Berlin plays like a half-recalled nightmare peppered with hilarious asides. Which would be enough, if Mendelsohn didn't teasingly imply he could go all the way and make a truly remarkable, tweaked, and tasty addition to the dysfunctional-family genre.