Synopsis: A Polish-Jewish family comes to the USA at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There, the family and their children try to make themselves a better future in the so-called promised land.
Stars: Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Elijah Wood
Director: Barry Levinson
Running Length: 128 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: The third movie in Levinson’s “Baltimore Trilogy” (that actually ended up being a four-movie cycle), Avalon moved from looking at the writers friends (Diner) and neighborhood (Tin Men) to his relatives and family. Telling the story of an immigrant family and their second and third generations, Avalon shows a little weakness in narrative and a few questionable choices in editing.
Mueller-Stahl heads the cast as Sam Krichinsky who recites the oft-told tale of his coming to America on the fourth of July. His arrival coincides with fireworks and a huge display of patriotism. How interesting must this have been for the people that arrived on boats from lands with no independence to see these happenings all around them? These images are repeated several times throughout the film and I kept finding myself asking that same question each time.
Joining his four brothers in the family wallpaper business, Sam meets his wife Eva (Plowright) and starts a family in short order. Quinn plays Sam’s son Jules, Perkins is Jules’ wife and a young Wood mumbles his way through as Sam’s grandson. Now, I always felt that Wood struggled with his early roles and this is a prime example. He never comes across as totally professional and he tends to suck the life out of some scenes with his amateur delivery and tendency to miss his mark. It’s strange that Levinson didn’t get a better performance out of him…but it may have been exactly the performance Levinson wanted as the role he is playing is so clearly based on his own life.
The Kirchinsky family goes through a lot during the course of the movie – as the seasons change and ideas of progress sweep through the US the clinging to tradition grows weaker with each generation. Quite a lot of the movie is centered on/around holidays…holidays that this Jewish family may not observe but recognize as a part of the American culture.
The beef I have with our Kirchinsky tale is that it’s episodic to the point of confusion. Often times we are plopped down into situations that come out of nowhere…like starting to watch a TV series halfway through the season. I don’t have to have my films with easy narratives or non-challenging structures but I do have to at least understand where we’ve been previously. The film isn’t edited well either…with some shots going on so long you start to look around the screen to make sure you aren’t missing something you need to be looking at. A rushed ending that stuffs years of material into a brief coda feels unsatisfying.
Like his previous efforts, Levinson is obviously compelled to tell these stories of his memories and largely he succeeds. Avalon is a mostly well-made memory piece that puts to film a time, place, people, and country that many of us have forgotten. Levinson hasn’t forgotten though, and he’s provided a film that can be viewed now with a certain eye and respect for family culture.