Torn between "Two Lovers" — one Jewish, the other not — the kashrut-keeping Leonard Kraditor asks, as he limps along in life, "Can't we all get along?"
But the emotionally beaten down dry-cleaner drone isn't the Rodney King of the kosher set in this new James Gray gray zone of a film opening on Friday. King? Leonard is a petty pawn of his own inadequacies, and in the Prozac nation where he lives, this Brighton Beach brooder is secretary of state.
And his state is a shambling stupor, brought on by depression and de facto inner turmoil exacerbated by an earlier broken engagement engendered by the fact that he and his former fiancée failed a Tay-Sachs test.
Jewish genetic disease as damper for romance? Has Hollywood's Jewish DNA come out from under the microscope to become a microcosm of everyday life?
Sure hits home for director/writer Gray, the Queens-raised prince of pictures whose Brighton Beach memoirs — this is his third film set there, starting out with the small 1994 gem "Little Odessa" — are far less comic than Neil Simon's, but no less emotionally fraught with menacing memory.
Take Tay-Sachs as topic. "When my wife and I were thinking of having a child, we went for testing — and my wife's not Jewish, but I'm an Ashkenazi Jew and we wanted to make sure" everything was fine.
He passed the test — which was not the score he wanted. "I tested positive for Tay-Sachs."
That got the artist in him arguing about life's vicariousness and vicissitudes: How negatively would it affect a couple's lives if both were positive for Tay-Sachs?
Two lives, "Two Lovers" … single vision: Leonard, portrayed with jagged gentility by an ashen Joaquin Phoenix, rising to the occasion (no matter the rap on his future), is a barely breathing, living post-mortem of himself. Dead man shambling — until he finds a reason for living: a gorgeous gentile goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the same apartment building –where he lives with his parents ranting at life rent-free — whose own personal problems, including a relationship with a much older married man, should qualify the couple for a group discount on SSRI's at the local pharmacy.
But then, there is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the nice gentle Jewish girl whose father is buying out Leonard's dad's dry-cleaning business just as the washed-out son tumbles into view to her delight.
Tri-cornered hat trick? Hamantashen of a Hollywood romance?
Gray's anatomy; the filmmaker enhances his body of work with "Two Lovers" and Brighton Beach as beachhead: "It's not important for me to do Jewish themes" — "Little Odessa" focused on the Russian Jewish mob — "but for this film to feel authentic, it was important to borrow from my own childhood and my ethnic roots," says the 40-year-old director, who limned Leonard from the shallow shadows of a 32-year-old Jewish friend of his who still lived with his folks.
"And Jewish culture can be incredibly powerful."
And palpable. Root, root, root for the home team? "My grandfather — a Russian Jew — was an interesting and strange person who had a poor command of English and lamented life in the United States — even though his parents were murdered by Cossacks in Russia."
Aching for Anatevka, he died in 1982.
"He was a melancholy man," says the grandson, whose zayda's posthumous mission seems to have taken over Leonard's spirit. But then, Brighton Beach is no bright spot either, although Gray finds it powerful as a palette. "It has a very melancholy and poetic [tinge] to it."
And Gray's lugubrious setting has a tinge of Inge; somehow, this auteur has authenticated a 2009 film with the feel of an old-time drama: There is a vestige of William Inge's "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" stepping up to the plate; "Dark," too, shed light on the travails of a mentally ill Jewish young man at odds with society and everyday life.
Post-modern module? Gray acknowledges the influence, but then he also feels a kinship with the Brothers Karamazov — or at least the Russian "boys'" author: "Two Lovers" is actually inspired by Dostoevsky's White Nights.
These nights, Gray greets colorful acclaim for his film with a special pride, the picture of accomplishment. And if his own family is proud of his achievement, look no further than the walls of the Kraditor apartment to see their smiles — they're lined with aging photos of Gray's own ancestors and framed with his father's paintings.
Off-the-wall melodrama for a millennium with no ceiling to its current pain? In a way. But echoes of the past are echtian here. Indeed, the music of the night is a familiar one, a nocturnal homage to troubles past: "If Verdi would have been a filmmaker, this is the kind of film he would have wanted to make."
Verdi, Inge … Dostoevsky? The filmmaker's no idiot: "I steal the best," laughs Gray.
Stolen moments in the film reflect a different kind of composition: The Jewish attraction here — Sandra — is truly attractive, a brown-haired beauty charcoaled colorfully by Gray as a legitimate choice for Leonard's tug-of-heart war.
A Jewish femme frum with a hum of sex appeal — contrasting sharply with the usual Hollywood hollow battle between blonde bombshell with "shiksappeal" and the mousy genial asexual Jewish generic speaking softly, but carrying a big schtick.
"I tried to smash stereotypes," reveals Gray.
And, in the process, he's made a smashing film.