Since I have not ended up with my dream job of professional film critic, I am resigned to reading A.O Scott’s reviews in The New York Times and catching up on the many films I have missed in the theater with assistance from Netflix, Blockbuster and the local public library. This bit of reality accounts for my having only now just viewed the 2008 release, Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix (in his self-proclaimed final acting performance), Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw.
Two Lovers, directed and co-written by James Gray and set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, is essentially the coming of age story not of a boy, but of a thirty-something man-boy who is torn between two women as he tries to rebuild his life after his fiancee leaves him and a subsequent mental breakdown. The main character, Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is not pulled so much between the stable, kind and understanding Sandra (Shaw) and the emotionally needy, exotic (ie. Manhattanite) and dangerous Michelle (Paltrow), as he is between the life choices represented by them and facing him as he returns to live with his parents, trying to define his own adult future.
The film is alone worth seeing for the powerful, raw, and very real performances by its cast (including Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother), which are well complimented by Gray’s decision to film in a gritty, immediate style. But the added value for me was the opportunity to see a contemporary, hardworking, middle class Russian-Jewish immigrant family portrayed realistically, rather than as a stereotype or in broad caricature. The style of the film could make one assume that the story takes place a decade or two ago, leaving the viewer somewhat surprised to learn definitively during one scene that it actually takes place the same year the film was made. Aside from this, everything – from the way Leonard’s family’s apartment is decorated, to the dialogue, to the decaying Brighton Beach setting and way of life – rings true. Watching Phoenix, known for his outstanding portrayal of the bigger-than-life Johnny Cash so artfully embody the quirky, confused and off-balance everyman Leonard is a highly rewarding experience.
Two Lovers deals – and not too subtly or indirectly – with a specific aspect of Leonard’s choice between the two young women who have entered his life at the same time. Put most simply, Sandra is the daughter of a business associate of Leonard’s father, and a nice Jewish girl, while Michelle is the beautiful, blond shiksa. To the credit of the screenwriters, as well as that of the actors, these two female characters do not come off as complete stereotypes. Still, the tensions they present and the questions they pose for Leonard about the importance of ethnic and religious loyalty, and even just comfort, are front and center throughout.
The pull for Jewish men between these two types of women has a long tradition in American life, as it has in our culture’s film and literature. It is clear in Two Lovers what Leonard’s parents’ preferred choice is for him. However, this preference does not override their love for Leonard and their desire for him to be happy. In one of the most moving scenes in Two Lovers, Rossellini’s Ruth Kraditor conveys this message to her son at a pivotal moment.
What Leonard’s mother, like so many other Jewish mothers, is hoping is that her child will marry and build a family with another Jew. What so many young Jews do not understand is that their mothers (and fathers) do not want them to do this solely to ensure the survival of the Jewish people. In a recent article called, “Why I’m Marrying a Jewish Girl: An Article for Jewish Mothers to Show Their Sons,” its author, comedian Steve Hofstetter, explains how he came to realize that his mother’s nagging him to sign up for JDate was not only about Jewish continuity. At a certain point, he came to know
“…that marrying a Jewish woman is simply better for me. It’s not about my kids or the future of our entire people.
It’s about chemistry, and finding someone that’s passionate about what I love. And one thing that I love is being Jewish.
I love kibitzing during kiddish, without having to explain either of those words to someone. I love knowing what baseball players are Jewish, and rooting for them a bit more because of it. I love eating buttered matzah the first morning of Passover (though by the eighth, I’m not as big of a fan). I finally realized that I don’t have to be Judah Macabee; I just have to be me. And it’s a lot more rewarding to share your life with someone who truly understands it…
Hofstetter’s advice to Jewish mothers:
“So when you tell your kids that you want them to find a nice Jewish girl, or boy, or who cares what it is as long as it’s Jewish, I suggest you tell them why. They’re not looking for someone Jewish because it’s important to you. They’re looking for someone Jewish because it’s important to them.”
Many have made light of the subject of intermarriage, poking fun at stereotypes and perceived prejudices. You can buy books like, Boy Vey!: The Shikse’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men, described as “the definitive, hilarious guide…a must-have for all Shiksas trying to snag, date, and love a nice Jewish boy.” No doubt we all need to laugh a little in life, including at ourselves. But there comes a point in real life, as we do the real work of making life choices, when it is no longer a laughing matter.
Laughing is not something I did once while viewing Two Lovers. A modest-scale production depicting a story of focused, limited scope, it is a very serious film. It explores the questions central to its plot and themes, including the question of who a Jew should marry, seriously. If you haven’t already seen it, rent, borrow or buy the film and discover for yourself how Leonard’s life and character are shaped by choices that others make, and what choices he ultimately makes for himself.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.