Mama?s Goy: Casting Phoenix as Jew nearly as bad a decision as having him on your talk show.

“Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shakespeare’s Shylock famously asks his Christian tormentors in The Merchant of Venice. Since the money-lender’s cry for respect still feels fresh four centuries later, he might demand a pound of flesh from director James Gray, who’s inexplicably cast über-goys Joaquin Phoenix and Isabella Rossellini in Two Lovers, a squirm-inducing film about escaping a one-dimensional version of Brooklyn Jewry. Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor, a depressed slouch who unsuccessfully tries to drown himself in Sheepshead Bay after his fiancée’s parents put the kibosh on the match, languishes in a dusty, greenish-brown apartment with his nagging mother (Rossellini, who makes half-hearted gestures at dowdiness) and bumbling father (Moni Monoshov), an Israeli dry cleaner who marvels at text messaging. But all is not lost for the troubled Leonard: His father’s business is about to be purchased by a Jewish dry-cleaning magnate whose daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) has been successfully yenta-ed Leonard’s way. But before the two lovebirds can find a chuppa, Leonard is bewitched by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a vapid, club-going, Ecstasy-­taking shiksa living upstairs whose blond mane is Brighton Beach’s only light hue. “Is this Yiddish?” Michelle asks, scrutinizing a wall of family portraits in Leonard’s apartment. It’s a reasonable question. The interminable high-school love triangle Two Lovers offers by way of drama is all too appropriate for Gray’s Playskool Brooklyn, a fantasyland drawn so crudely—the Jews so miserably, seriously Jewish, the gentiles so merrily, insipidly goyish—that any three-dimensional character would seem out of place. In We Own the Night, Gray’s unbelievably bad 2007 crime drama, this director’s weakness for cardboard characters and turgid pacing was mere incompetent filmmaking. But Two Lovers’ childlike swipes at charged subject matter—does Leonard run to Michelle to run away from his Jewishness, and is Jewishness something worth running away from?—flatter stereotypes, stray into the offensive, and, worst of all, fail as entertainment. The film’s only redeeming feature—Leonard’s hopeful (or cynical, depending on your temperament) choice between Sandra and Michelle in the film’s surprisingly sophisticated denouement—feels imported from a better movie. Still, Gray’s bumbling aside, Two Lovers puts the spotlight on Phoenix, who announced his retirement from acting to pursue hip-hop and booked a cryptic interview with David Letterman since this film wrapped. If, as many are murmuring, Phoenix’s rap act is a Kaufmanesque stunt, it’s way more interesting than anything he puts on screen here. More Travis Bickle than Woody Allen and more Marc David Chapman than Ari Gold, Phoenix’s performance is neither subtle, nor compelling, nor even particularly “Jewish”—unless a bar mitzvah bestows the license to mumble. Is Leonard Kraditor a stalker, a mama’s boy, or a ladies’ man? Phoenix can’t seem to decide, and Gray can’t make his lead’s indecision seem complex. Shylock’s famous “eyes” line demands respect for Jews on the grounds of humanity. By this criterion, we owe little to Phoenix and his baby blues. —Justin Moyer