James Gray made his name with a trio of brooding, morally ambiguous crime films set in the outer boroughs of New York: Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night. Now, with Two Lovers (opening Friday), he has returned to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn for another story of a troubled young man in peril—only this time, the person most likely to do the protagonist in is himself. Leonard Kraditor (played by Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix) begins the film by jumping off a pier, then proceeds to the really self-destructive plunge: falling obsessively in love with a new neighbor in his apartment building (Gwyneth Paltrow) whose attention slips out of focus as often as her druggie eyes, and whose powers of self-preservation are no more ample than her skirts. Leonard would clearly be safer, and more successful, with the shy, modest, beautiful, and willing young woman (Vinessa Shaw) whom his parents have picked out for him. But then, sound judgment isn’t something to expect of a man who is still living in his parents’ apartment in his mid-30s, working in his father’s dry-cleaning shop, and staying out of the psychiatric ward mostly through the power of medication.
Two Lovers retains Gray’s trademark sense of urban space, as well as his preoccupation with fractured families and disturbed spirits; but now that the exterior, physical threats have retreated, the ethnicity of his characters has come to the fore. They are integrally, not coincidentally, Jewish.
When reached by telephone in Los Angeles—where his greatest complaint as a transplanted New Yorker is the absence of a decent pizza slice—Gray readily shared his thoughts on why Two Lovers may be his most Jewish movie to date.
Does Leonard Kraditor have to be Jewish for this story to work?
The story has its origin in two places. One of them is Dostoyevsky’s “White Nights,” which I pulled off the shelf a while ago for a little light reading. What I saw in that story was a person who today would be assigned a whole host of psychological maladies, and pharmaceuticals to address them—but in the 19th century, he would just have been considered a little off. The other origin is that after my wife became pregnant, we went to the doctor for genetic tests, and the genetic counselor started telling me about cases where both parents were positive for Tay-Sachs disease. She told me about couples that had broken apart because they were both carriers. I thought that was a great place to start, combining Dostoyevsky’s conception of bipolar disorder with a heartbreak for Leonard that was rooted in this cultural and indeed biological tradition. So the Jewishness of the character has always been very important to me.
You take great care to be authentic in your settings. Did you feel the need to be authentic in casting, too?
It’s funny, some people have asked me, “Why didn’t you cast Jewish actors?” But Joaquin is Jewish. And Vinessa: I had wanted someone for the role who was like a young Claudia Cardinale, because it would have been a cliché to cast someone homely. I saw Vinessa in 3:10 to Yuma and thought she was lovely, but I wanted the actress to be Jewish. Then I met Vinessa and told her all this, and she said, “My real name is Schwartz.” The only one I went off the reservation with was Isabella Rossellini—but in fact she looks very much like my mother used to look, very earthy and humane. I didn’t want the Lainie Kazan kind of, “Lenn-id, pick up yuh duhty lawndry.” I love Lainie Kazan, but I didn’t want any suggestion of Borscht Belt humor. The film couldn’t be a negative, loveless portrait of these people—and Isabella was as far away from a stereotype as I could get.
How did you come to cast the Israeli actor who plays Leonard’s father, Moni Moshonov?
I first saw Moni by accident. I got to a movie theater late and wound up watching Late Marriage, because it was at the right time, and because I remembered reading a very positive review by J. Hoberman. So I went in, and I loved it. Later, I talked about it with someone who was involved in the Cannes festival, and he said, “Yeah, that guy’s a wonderful actor, a legend in Israel.” When I was making We Own the Night, I wanted someone who didn’t seem like he was out of Eastern Promises. I wanted an avuncular, atypical-looking guy and remembered Moni in Late Marriage. And I loved working with him so much that I wrote this part for him.
You’ve been speaking about avoiding stereotypes—but is there perhaps something typically Jewish about men like Leonard, who are bright and talented but can’t seem to live in the world?
I based Leonard on a guy I actually know. He is Jewish, though that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. Or maybe it does. I read an article a few years ago that said Ashkenazi Jews have a relatively high level of dopamine, which is associated with depression. But I didn’t think of that consciously when I was making the film. I just based it on a guy I knew who was in a state of arrested development: 32 years old, living at home after a traumatic experience, and his room was a mess.
How deeply did you base the film on real experiences like that? For example, did you, too, grow up with a photograph of a rabbinic ancestor on the wall?
Except for a few old pictures of the cast members, the photos you see on the walls of the Kraditor apartment are photos of my family and my ancestors. And the paintings in the apartment belong to my dad. This is all stuff that I took off the walls of the house I grew up in. I wanted to set-design the movie as little as possible, so I took all these elements that were from my life and put them in that apartment. Not that this is a home movie, but you always want to make a movie as personal as you can. It comes from a desire to make a world that I understand in all its details.
It’s a loving but disappointed world. Does that, too, seem Jewish to you?
There is a kind of pathos in the Jewish cultural tradition—a melancholy, a sense of longing, which I think has its roots very far back, in a religion that lacks an emphasis on heaven and hell. There’s a belief that life is what happens between birth and death, an understanding of our mortality and its tragic element, which I think is beautiful. And I’ve definitely embraced that in the work I’ve done.
Stuart Klawans is the film critic of the Nation and author of the books Film Follies and Left in the Dark.