Picks and Pans Review: Avalon

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Armin Mueller-Stahl, Joan Plowright, Aidan Quinn

It plods a bit and is sentimental in the extreme. But this film by Barry (Rain Man) Levinson, which shows a Baltimore family in five generations, remains an elegant, often eloquent tribute to the courage, optimism and survival instincts of those who immigrated to this country early in the century.

Mueller-Stahl (Music Box) is one of five sons from a Jewish Russian family fighting to keep its identity in the new country. Typically, Mueller-Stahl, showing a remarkable mix of pride, humility and unschooled understanding, gets livid when his son, Quinn, announces he is changing his name from Krichinsky to Kaye. Also typically, once he has blustered about it, Mueller-Stahl faces reality, as he has since he arrived in Baltimore in 1914.

Plowright, as Mueller-Stahl's lovingly meddlesome wife, is predictably exceptional. There is a world of inflection in her voice as she insists she isn't blaming her daughter-in-law (Elizabeth Perkins), whose car has been hit by a runaway trolley—but. "Never has there ever been a streetcar jumped its track. A train has jumped its tracks, but never a streetcar."

Quinn and Perkins, understating admirably, embody the transitional generation. But everyone in the family seems to belong, from veteran Lou (Arthur) Jacobi, as Mueller-Stahl's stubborn older brother, to Elijah Wood, 8, who plays Quinn's son.

Wood's role is that of the young Levin-son. The writer-director based his story on his own family history, to which he adds folkloric touches. When Mueller-Stahl recalls how he and his brothers brought their father over from Russia, the brothers' now-adult children remember their main impression: how tiny their grandfather was. "I never said he was big," Mueller-Stahl reminds them. "I said he was the father."

While Levinson includes enough action to pep up the pace, this movie is concerned not so much with plot as with tone, emotion and how people and society change each other. It is about hopes and compromises that may be just as relevant to modern immigrants, with different names to change, different accents, different skin color. Do look now, but Levinson may have just slipped a history lesson over on us. (PG)

From Our Partners