Eric Mendelsohn, the director and writer of the eerie, strangely resonant ensemble drama "Judy Berlin," cut his teeth in costume design, working as an assistant to Jeffrey Kurland on "Bullets Over Broadway," "Husbands and Wives" and three other Woody Allen productions. Mendelsohn's partial debt to Allen is clear: His debut feature (following 1992's little-seen short, "Through an Open Window") is presented in beautifully photographed, high-contrast black and white that borders on sepia tones.
Allenesque urban neurosis is also evident in the film's rather uneventful, dialogue-driven story, though it vies for running time with suburban angst that's straight out of a New Yorker short story and a patchwork of interconnected characters that owes a thing or two to Robert Altman.
"Judy Berlin" is set during an unusually extended solar eclipse that envelops the Long Island bedroom community of Babylon (a stand-in for Mendelsohn's hometown of Bethpage). On the second day of the school year, the odd midday darkness sets the stage for the town's inhabitants to stumble onto a series of minor revelations about their lives of lonely desperation. It's as if the Woodman or Altman had helmed a particularly literate episode of "The Twilight Zone."
David Gold (Aaron Harnick), a melancholy 30-year-old, has recently returned home from Southern California after failing to find his fortune as a filmmaker. Currently living in a state of teary limbo with his parents, he wanders around the darkened town, bumping into annoying old acquaintances at a commuter-train platform and gathering inspiration for a proposed documentary.
The morose, somewhat self-righteous David unexpectedly finds a lifeline in high-school classmate Judy Berlin (a nearly unrecognizable Edie Falco of HBO hit "The Sopranos"). Two years older than David, the wannabe actress is employed at a sort of historical theme park; her greatest success thus far has been a TV advertisement for a local company named Dinettes Plus.
"You gotta go where the work is," says Judy, who admires the work of Diane Keaton. She's as naively optimistic about her prospects for success as David is pessimistic about his own. Crossing and recrossing paths during the sunless interlude, the duo still manage to make a semblance of a personal connection.
Babylon's other inhabitants, though, aren't quite as fortunate. Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy), a sad-eyed school principal, has an unconsummated flirtation with Judy's divorced mom, Sue Berlin, an uptight, alienated teacher played by Barbara Barrie (Harnick's real-life mom). Dolores Engler (Bette Henritze), a retired teacher with Alzheimer's, strolls into her old classroom and attempts to gain control of the frightened students.
Arthur's wife, Alice Gold (Madeline Kahn, in an unsettling final performance), is a jabber-mouthed ball of nerves. She revels in the surrealism of the dark, deserted streets: "We're space explorers," she exults, strolling zombielike from house to house. Like the others, she's engaged in an protracted and mystifying walk on the moon.