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Permanent Adolescence

March 5, 2009

This review was first published on on Feb. 27, 2009.

You wouldn’t know it from the trailer, but Two Lovers is one of the most spot-on portraits of modern Jewish life to come along in years. Then again, the trailer doesn’t tell you much of anything about this quietly powerful film. Movies that capture the nuances of real relationships don’t lend themselves to catchy marketing.

rossellini and phoenix
Isabella Rossellini and Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Two Lovers.

Directed by James Gray (We Own The Night), Two Lovers tells the story of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix, Jewish on his mom’s side), a mentally unbalanced Jewish man who is torn between the woman his parents want him to like (Vanissa Shaw) and a mysterious non-Jewish neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow, Jewish on her father’s side). The setting is Brighton Beach, one of the most Jewish zip codes in the country. Leonard lives with his parents, owners of a dry cleaning business. He spends his days sleeping, working for his father and popping pills to fend off his chronic depression.

As Phoenix portrays him, Leonard is a teenager trapped in an adult body. His posture is a slouch, his voice a mumble, his walk a shuffle. Like an adolescent, he bristles at his parents’ attempts to help him. The excuse for his erratic behavior–including a suicidal attempt or two–is his break-up with his fiancé after she learned they were both carriers of the Tay-Sachs gene. But Gray smartly never tells us whether Leonard has ever acted his age. Indeed, his childlike sweetness draws two beautiful women to him.

Leonard meets Sandra Cohen (Shaw) at a family dinner with Sandra’s parents, who are looking to buy Leonard’s father’s business. (And Leonard’s father, we later learn, is looking to sell so Leonard will have healthcare after he dies.) A successful corporate type, Sandra is nonetheless intrigued by Leonard after seeing him dance with his mother at the family store. She’s Jewish, he’s Jewish; she’s single, he’s single. In the eyes of Jewish mothers everywhere, they’re a perfect match.

Michelle (Paltrow), on the other hand, is a Jewish mother’s nightmare: underemployed, emotionally unstable and not Jewish. She matches Leonard pill for pill.

While Sandra’s and Leonard’s relationship goes on the fast track–by week three, he is an honored guest at her brother’s bar mitzvah–Leonard silently pines for Michelle, who is entangled with a wealthy married lawyer. At quiet lunches with Sandra, he nervously watches his phone for a text from Michelle. Would he be as interested if she were not so unattainable? As with all adolescent infatuations, who can say?

Despite his white bread name, Gray comes from a rich Jewish background. It shows. I have rarely seen a film get so many subtle Jewish cultural details just right: the pot roast at dinner, the goofy candle-lighting at the bar mitzvah reception, even the smell of mothballs in Leonard’s parents’ apartment.

Gray and his co-writer Ric Menello smartly underplay the intermarriage card. Leonard’s parents never say a peep about Michelle’s religion, but Jewish viewers know they’re holding their tongues to avoid blowback. At the same time, they gently encourage his relationship with Sandra–but, like clever Jewish parents everywhere, say nothing about her religion either.

The screenplay is so subtle and finely tuned that it’s nearly impossible to say what Gray’s attitude toward intermarriage is. The film could as easily be read as a critique of inmarriage as it could be read as a warning against intermarriage. Leonard is willing to abandon his family–and by extension, his tradition–for the faint hope that the beautiful non-Jewish woman will love him back. But Leonard’s relationships with Jewish women are no sunnier. One left him because their future children might suffer from a horrible terminal disease, and the other holds interest only as a placeholder. For Leonard, inmarriage is either a loveless arrangement of convenience, or the source of genetic doom.

In the laudable absence of a simple message about intermarriage, I propose another way to read this film. It serves as a critique of the Jewish community’s flawed approach to intermarriage.

On the one hand, young Jews are told not to intermarry because their children won’t grow up to be Jewish; on the other, they’re told to marry Jewish because it’s the right thing to do. This binary approach is irrelevant to most young Jewish people. We will love and marry whomever we want in this diverse, mobile society.

But Leonard’s romantic choices are a direct reaction to Jewish sermonizing against intermarriage. The twist is, he doesn’t heed the warnings–he rebels against them. He chases the non-Jewish woman precisely because she offers an escape. He rejects the Jewish one simply because she is his parents’ preference.

It is surely not Gray’s intent, but Two Lovers shows how the Jewish community’s message on intermarriage isn’t merely pointless, it’s potentially destructive. If you treat adults like children, they’ll act like children. Much like Leonard, the Jewish community needs to grow up.

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