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The Doctor Is In

Ben Shenkman is Feinberg in ‘Blue Valentine’

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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]

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Shenkman is an amazing actor — both in Angels in America and in Proof (for which he was nominated for a Tony). And he can rock out the trashy-fun TV too — Burn Notice! Bummer to hear this role isn’t worthy of him.

Oh, no, Shenkman shone, as usual! But the doctor is no charmer, that’s for sure.

Agreed that Shenkman is an amazing actor. He always gives nuanced, thoughtful performances. If you have a problem with the film’s material, fine– but I’m not sure what you’re trying to achieve here by using phrases like “reedy man with a big nose.” Come on.

If your point was that Shenkman is a talented performer who was wasted in a demeaning role, you failed. Reasonably read, your piece dismisses the character and the actor as emblematic (even physically) of stereotypical Jewish weakness(“Angels In America’s Ben Shenkman – who else?”). That’s a reductive, harsh characterization– more, most would argue, than the actual film or filmmakers are guilty of– which your hurried, unconvincing disclaimer that he “shone as usual” does little to dispel. As other comments have already shown, he is admired as an excellent and versatile performer who deserved better. And the film is widely recognized as a non-“Hollywood” product that doesn’t traffic in types; none of the characters are “charmers” or “endearing.” So the reduction to stereotype, possibly, is yours.

Ms. Hoffman, do you realize that by writing: “Ben Shenkman – who else?” you are igniting the stereotype of a truly remarkable actor? Have you followed Ben Shenkman’s stellar career? Are you familiar with his range and depth?

Please, before you make a comment like this, do your homework. Tablet should be ashamed and Ms. Hoffman should apologize.

Allison, I totally got that you were dissing the role as written, not the actor! Shenkman elevates everything he appears in. (Did I mention Burn Notice?)

My fellow commenters, I think Allison gets that the guy is a major talent. He IS reedy and he DOES have a big nose…but that shouldn’t limit him to one-dimensional Jewish stereotypical roles. And indeed, in the past, it hasn’t. I think her point was that THIS role uses his looks as shorthand for “one-dimensional Jewy nebbish with crap values.” He certainly played more nuanced characters in Proof and Angels — the only two things I’ve seen him in besides, um, Burn Notice. (Shut up, I don’t get out much.)

And I will add: Haven’t seen the movie yet. Maybe when I do I’ll the part IS nuanced. But I thought Allison built a good argument for OY, “tone-deaf putz.”

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Not our activity for Him but our captivity to Him!

Every potter praises his pot, and most of all the one that is cracked. – Italian Proverb

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Rent and Taxes never sleep. – German Proverb

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The Doctor Is In

Ben Shenkman is Feinberg in ‘Blue Valentine’

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