Ben Shenkman.(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company)

If you’re looking to end 2010 on a romantically bitter note, you couldn’t find a better picture than Blue Valentine, which opens today. The movie collapses the birth and death of a love affair into two exceptionally draining hours, transposing its charmed beginnings with its terrible devolution—a breakdown that feels all the more tragic and harrowing because the reasons for it are so believably banal. Anyone who’s ever been tangled up in a sticky relationship will recognize the emotional exhaustion that inevitably accompanies the struggle to break free, and both New York’s David Edelstein and The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane rightly credit this sledgehammer effect to the powerful performances turned of its stars, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.

But Blue Valentine also marks the return of a Hollywood archetype we haven’t seen much of lately: The wimpy Jewish doctor.

Meet Dr. Feinberg (Angels in America‘s Ben Shenkman—who else?), a reedy man with a big nose and a crush on Williams’ character, his assistant Cindy, a working-class girl stuck in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, nursing her pipe dream of attending medical school. If director Derek Cianfrance were following the playbook established over the past few years by Judd Apatow, Dr. Feinberg would be the sensitive, endearing foil to Gosling’s boorish Dean—the misfit who identifies with Cindy, highlighting her husband Dean’s failings and offering an unexpected shot at happiness. Instead, Dr. Feinberg is a tone-deaf putz who takes for granted the very things Cindy so badly wants but can’t seem to attain, however hard she sets her mind to it.

The contrast between the upwardly mobile Dr. Feinberg and Dean, a housepainter who claims being a devoted dad excuses his total lack of ambition, couldn’t be clearer. Dr. Feinberg doesn’t bother to fathom the life his pretty blonde attendant, or anyone else, leads beyond the four walls of the clinic, and when Cindy’s messy home life comes barging in the front door, upsetting order, he doesn’t know how to respond except by calling the cops.

Jewishness, here, is shorthand for class distinction. It turns out that Dr. Feinberg is on his way to a new practice, in Riverdale—the leafiest, Jewish-est neighborhood in the Bronx—and he offers her a job, and a way out of her circumstances. But to Cindy, trapped in her own all-consuming drama, it’s just one more source of disappointment, wrapped in a shiny veil of hope.

Love Among the Ruins [NY Mag]
Couple Trouble [The New Yorker]
Related: Spooltide Cheer [Tablet Magazine]