Year Released: 2009
Directed by: James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini
(R, 108 min.)
"The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." Henry David Thoreau
Sweet but not sappy, this films rings with authenticity. In fact, you probably have met the near twin of at least one character sometime in your life. And just as in real life, it also teeters between exhilaration and despair, comfort and claustrophobia, obsession and love.
What really keeps us involved is the gentle tease of expectations and stereotypes that don’t quite evolve. It’s as if we’re listening to a talented jazz player who departs from the score to an unscripted variation of the melody we anticipate.
Thus, a distraught Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) jumps off a bridge into the muddy waters below only to kick back to the surface to rescue himself. Without missing a beat, he walks home, changes into some dry clothes, and becomes an at least passable companion for his parents’ dinner guests.
The guests are the Cohens, the family set to buy the family’s dry cleaning business, and it becomes clear during the cozy dinner that more inter family business is at hand as well. The Cohens are eager for Leonard to show their Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) his collection of black and white photos of Brighten Beach, nodding her off to see his etchings in the bedroom down the hall. Only Sandra shatters any parental arrangement notion when she tells Leonard the visit was her idea. She has seen him at the shop and it is at her insistence that the dinner was planned.
Leonard’s room is a mess of tangled clutter, kind of what we might expect of a hopeless loser, a thirty something year old still living on his parents’ charity and schlepping through his days at the family dry cleaning business. But then we find out he has his reasons. His fiancée has abruptly called off their marriage after finding they both carry genes for Tay Sachs disease. Life back with his parents has followed a suicide attempt and hospital stay.
Which gives Ruth (Isabella Rossellini), his perhaps overly solicitous “Jewish mother” her own valid reasons as well. So when she wakes him in the morning and reminds him to take his medicine, or when she hovers near Leonard’s door as he watches the shadow of her footsteps, we understand her motherly concern.
Just as Sandra is beginning to wake Leonard from his self-imposed neuropathy – she is as lovely as she is forthright – he bumps into, almost literally, her polar opposite, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Tall, blond, and bubbly even in distress -- which in this case is her ranting father whose diatribe has driven her into the apartment hallway -- she is the chilled Champagne to Sandra’s sweet Mogen David. Poor Leonard is transfixed from the start, even as she soon reveals herself to be the somewhat drug addicted mistress of her married boss, desperately waiting for him to leave his wife as he has repeatedly vowed.
As she drags the hapless Leonard into her soap opera existence, completely oblivious to the amorous element of his devotion, we want to resent her, see her as a selfish manipulator. Paltrow, to her credit, however, plays Michelle with a confiding, childlike earnestness that makes those feelings impossible. Nor can we quite loathe the married boss/lover either. His affection for her seems real enough, not the backstreet affair we might expect. He welcomes “her friend Leonard” to their dinner out, and takes Michelle to the opera, not just the bedroom after.
Just about everyone is played against the Brighton Beach setting, the rag tag culture of sea, shops, and overhead “subway” just a forty minute ride from Fifth Avenue and Wall Street. The apartment where Leonard lives with his parents is almost a character itself, with its wall of dusty framed pictures and the hooded jackets hanging next to the doorway. It is cozy and a bit claustrophobic as well. No wonder when Leonard looks out his window to see Michelle looking down upon him from hers, she evokes an exotic Juliet, just as entrancing, foreign, and potentially tragic.
It is Joaquin Phoenix’s superb portrayal of Leonard that anchors the film. He pulls off an ending that in other hands might seem rushed or contrived. We feel we are watching a real person, one with a few problems, of course, one who is well meaning and ruthless at the same time, but underneath sweet and natural. Let us hope that his decision to abandon acting for rap artistry is like the dive into the muddy waters that opens our film, that he kicks his feet off the bottom and returns to the surface for air before it is too late.
Like all good mothers in general, and good Jewish mothers in particular, Leonard’s mother Ruth knows that Chicken Soup is the cure for just about anything. That’s why it is often called Jewish Penicillin. That and a little love, as well.
It looks as though Leonard, self loathing schlub that he is at times, has almost an embarrassment of riches in the love department - warm and earthy Sandra and leggy blond, Michelle.
They may make his heart sing, but only Mama can make the chicken soup. Here is her special recipe.
Jewish Chicken Soup
- Fresh chicken wings, backs and necks
- 6 c. water (enough to cover chicken)
- 1/8 c. parsley
- 2 chicken bouillon cubes
- Celery, sliced, cut up into bite-size pieces
- Onions, sliced, cut up into bite-size pieces
- Carrots, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
- Pinch of saffron (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
In large pot, put chicken pieces and water. Bring to boil. Skim off brown foam and large yellow patches. Lower flame, add rest of ingredients. Cover and simmer 1 hour.
Recipe Source: Cooks. com