"I came to America in 1914," says Sam Krichinsky, a Jewish immigrant from Europe whom writer-director Barry Levinson based on his own grandfather. Levinson shows the young Sam dazzled by the lights and flag-waving as he arrives in Baltimore on the Fourth of July. Levinson and cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.) give this opening scene a mythic allure. For Sam, Baltimore the beautiful is alive with promise. But as the film moves through the next five decades, Levinson shows America defaulting on that promise. Progress — in the form of transportation, suburbia and television — has eaten away at the core of family life.
It's a weighty theme, and Levinson — fresh from his Oscar for Rain Man — labors hard, too hard, to work up a weighty movie. The two previous films Levinson shot in his hometown, Diner and Tin Men, made keen observations without straining for wider significance. "Avalon," named for the street of row houses in Baltimore where Sam first settled, is also a name for a utopian paradise. Levinson wants nothing less than to capture the hope and despair of the American dream through the saga of one family — his family. It's a grand ambition. But the film, though exquisitely crafted, lacks the political, spiritual and sociological depth to realize it.
What "Avalon" does offer are rich period details, abundant scenes of humor and heartbreak and outstanding performances. Armin Mueller-Stahl (Music Box) is superb as Sam. Resistant to change, Sam is surprised and hurt when his son, Jules (the excellent Aidan Quinn), shortens his last name to Kaye, opens a discount appliance store and moves to the suburbs with his wife, Ann (Elizabeth Perkins), and their young son, Michael (Elijah Wood). Sam's acerbically funny wife, Eva, wonderfully acted by Joan Plowright, can't understand why the new generation wants to live apart from its parents and eat in front of a TV set. She disapproves of TV, except for the commercial with "a cigarette box that dances." In these small, recognizable details, which Levinson uses to take measure of what's been lost, "Avalon" shines.