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Interfaith Romance Warms Up Flannel Pajamas

Stuart Sawyer and Nicole Riley are not complete opposites, but they are definitely attracted to each other. From their first date, a fix-up in a Manhattan diner, they are inseparable.

But could the differences in their backgrounds--religious, cultural, family and childhood--that initially seem so intriguing and attractive turn out to be obstacles to their enduring happiness?

Justin Kirk and Julianne Nicholson star as dysfunctional interfaith lovers in Flannel Pajamas.

The ballad of Stuart (Justin Kirk) and Nicole (Julianne Nicholson), as it unfolds in Jeff Lipsky's somewhat autobiographical independent feature Flannel Pajamas, is intimate and intense. Be prepared for a two-hour talkfest punctuated with plenty of kissing and just enough arguing and icy silences to jangle your nerves.

Lipsky employs lots of long takes that allow the actors to act, an admirable approach that recalls Bergman and Cassavetes. It doesn't deliver the same payoff, however, for scenes that don't climax so much as peter out and stop. That may accurately reflect real-life relationships, but it leaves the viewer with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction rather than catharsis.

Stuart cracks a dreidel joke at their first meeting, as a way of informing Nicole that he's Jewish. This initial flash of self-deprecating humor is atypical, we soon realize, for the assimilated Stuart is both hyper-verbal and extremely confident.

Nicole can talk, too, but the displaced Montana native is slower, softer and shyer than Stuart. She's deferential to him, partly because of the limits of her own self-confidence and partly because he's so assertive and decisive. This being the movies, there's always the possibility that her vulnerability also stems from being damaged in some way, or a childhood secret she harbors.

 

In Flannel Pajamas, Julianne Nicholson plays an impressionable non-Jewish woman from Montana who falls in love with a controlling Jewish man.

Such conjecture may be unfounded but it is unavoidable, if not irresistible. For better or worse, Flannel Pajamas leaves acres of room to read between the endless lines of dialogue. This viewer, for example, presumes that Stuart has been with non-Jewish girls, but that he's Nicole's first Jewish lover. In him, she may see--and fall in love with--ambition, intelligence, kindness, sophistication, financial security and first-rate social skills.

For his part, Stuart senses in Nicole a need for direction and strength. It becomes clearer, as the film unspools, that he prefers having the upper hand in romantic relationships. Certainly as a native New Yorker with family close by, he has a home-field advantage in this love affair.

Crucially, at a pretty early point in their connection, Stuart offers to pay off Nicole's student loans. It's not the only time that his wallet will play a role, and on each occasion it's a subtle means of increasing his influence and control. This is not exclusively a Jewish trait by any means, but the absence of other indicators of Stuart's Jewish identity gives this behavior a certain cultural significance.

The most overt, and shocking, reference to Stuart and Nicole's religious differences comes late in the film. Nicole's mother confides to Stuart that she believes every negative stereotype about Jews. It's jarring on any number of levels, not least in that it suggests that Nicole and Stuart were basically incompatible from the get-go.

Flannel Pajamas is a worthy, adult effort that aspires to a certain naked emotional power. Alas, the script and the actors don't achieve the requisite depths of vulnerability, revelation and insight.

The film feels simultaneously intimate and distant, up-close yet fatally out of reach, as if the filmmaker was more interested in avoiding clichés than diving headlong into a Pandora's box of uncomfortable truths.

 

Yiddish for "spin," a four-sided spinning top played with during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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