With yards of ambition unmatched by commensurate talent, writer/director James Gray has achieved a charmed critical rep that rewards him on effort rather than execution. (A small output with yawning gaps between each tortured project helps amplify the ‘serious artist’ tag.) Hardly anyone actually goes to the films, but his strenuous push to connect with the Francis Coppola & Sidney Lumet lineage on his second & third pics (THE YARD/’00; WE OWN THE NIGHT/’07) gets offered as self-evident bona fides. On this fourth pic (in 14 years), Gray leaves narrative drive behind for a character piece about a clinically depressed 30-something Jewish guy from Brighton Beach (Joaquin Phoenix), still living at home, who falls into two affairs: a parent-approved nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw); and a QT pash for that blonde shiksa Goddess living right in his apartment building (Gwyneth Paltrow) who's deeply involved with a rich married guy & the contents of her medicine cabinet. It's all dreary leftovers from the ‘50s, with Phoenix offering a mass of quivering Method Acting tics the likes of which haven't been seen in decades. Worse, he infects much of the cast with the bug. But then, with a Dad who wants to share his new Benny Hill DVDs; a fetching lover offering up THE SOUND OF MUSIC as her fave pic; and a ‘classy’ love object who thinks Brandy Alexanders are a sophisticated pre-dining cocktail, you might turn suicidal, too. (Gray’s latest, THE IMMIGRANT/’14, again with Phoenix, is just hitting the bijoux. Don’t miss missing it.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Gray tries to juice things up basting the film with an opera-tinged score. Note the main background vamp from Mascagni’s CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA. (Heck, after casting James Caan in YARDS & Robert Duvall in NIGHT, why not pay homage to, in this case, Coppola’s GODFATHER III/’90 which climaxed with the same piece.)
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: While not a patch on the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, Paul Mazursky’s shamefully neglected ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY/’89 lifts the NYC Jew in love with a blonde shiksa to tragicomic heaven, especially when the man’s ‘dead’ Jewish wife returns from the Holocaust alive.