'Diner' to 'Envy,' a Bumpy Career; New Levinson Film Can't Stop Slide Dating to 1992's Disastrous 'Toys'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

'Diner' to 'Envy,' a Bumpy Career; New Levinson Film Can't Stop Slide Dating to 1992's Disastrous 'Toys'


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Plenty of filmmakers used to envy Barry Levinson.The Baltimore native made his name with the 1982 ensemble comedy "Diner" and followed it with a string of smashes, including "The Natural" (1984), "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987) and, most memorably, 1988's "Rain Man." He walked away with the best-director Oscar that year, cementing an impressive decade of movies.

Then he caught the pet-project bug. His 1992 "Toys" represented his first unqualified dud at a time when both he and star Robin Williams appeared invincible.

He hasn't had a bona fide hit since 1994's "Disclosure," and some of his recent films (1999's "Liberty Heights," 2000's "An Everlasting Piece") barely made a ripple at the box office.

His latest, "Envy," boasts a can't-miss duo of Jack Black and Ben Stiller, but the film has sat unceremoniously on the shelf since last summer.

The finished product isn't "Ishtar" or "Gigli" bad, but given all the talent on set, it's an unmitigated disappointment.

Mr. Stiller's "Along Came Polly" inspired more laughs, and Mr. Black appears handcuffed by his character's nice-guy straitjacket.

Mr. Levinson, who denied an interview request by The Washington Times, used his East Coast roots as fodder for some of his most respected films, including "Diner" and 1987's "Tin Men," an underrated gem featuring battling aluminum-siding salesmen.

The director began his career as a comedy writer, contributing to "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine."

He quickly fell in with the right crowd - comic auteur Mel Brooks - and helped "The Producers" kingpin write "Silent Movie" and "High Anxiety." He also stepped in front of the camera briefly to play "Anxiety's" vengeful bellboy in its "Psycho" set piece.

His homegrown "Diner," which he also wrote, gained him entree to the big leagues.

His career momentum slowed in the mid-'90s, perhaps because he stopped playing to his strengths.

He often excels at tackling themes of innocence gone sour. The 1996 film "Sleepers" recalled four old friends who sought retribution for the torture they had suffered during their reform-school days.

One of "Diner's" most memorable plot lines has Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) quizzing his fiancee on sports as a precondition for the marriage to go on as scheduled. It's the kind of pact an 11-year-old might dream up about his future wife.

Some of his best recent work has appeared on the small screen. His "Homicide: Life on the Street" became part of the cop-show renaissance currently led by "Law & Order's" Dick Wolf.

Certainly, Mr. Levinson's descent has not been as shockingly rapid or ultimately calamitous as that of former wunderkind Peter Bogdanovich, whose next project is directing a telefilm for ESPN.

Perhaps the better parallel is the career of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan. The director of 1981's "Body Heat" has most recently foisted upon us the forgettable "Mumford" (1999) and the atrocious "Dreamcatcher," last year's Stephen King debacle, which stands as one of the worst major films in recent memory.

Perhaps Mr. Levinson is having trouble securing crackerjack scripts - heaven knows Hollywood isn't awash in them. It might simply be a matter of a talent spreading himself too thin. He writes, directs and produces films - and moonlights developing television projects. …

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