Review: Two Lovers
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Having seen the coolly composed trailer for “Two Lovers” – as well as a certain David Letterman interview – prior to my screening, I had every intention of opening this review with something like: “You won't find any of Joaquin Phoenix's recent bizarro behavior in his latest – and, reportedly, last – film.” But, lo and be dazzled, you will, and this sober romance piece from writer/director James Gray is all the richer for it.
Phoenix plays Leonard, a heartbroken, Bipolar antihero with the emotional development of a teenager and the selfish, delusional quirks of an alcoholic. An aspiring photographer and not much more, Leonard returns home to live with his welcoming parents in their Brooklyn apartment after his fiancée leaves him high, dry and suicidal. It's revealed that the split was a result of reproductive complications, but it's conceivable that she left because he's a man-child; not of the “Big” variety, but of the “I-can't-take-care-of-myself-let-alone-anyone-else” kind. Leonard sleeps till noon and goofs around at his father's dry cleaning business where he works part-time. He sneaks out of the house at night needlessly. He can't concentrate. He lies, double-books engagements and hatches impossible schemes, all of which cause him the sort of subsequent grief that most seasoned humans have learned to protect themselves against. In short, he's a paradigm of immaturity, and Phoenix's bittersweet portrayal is the most unguarded of his career. The two-time Oscar nominee is so at home playing an awkward, on-the-fringe noncomformist that one can't help but wonder if those “public performance” rumors regarding his new beard-and-shades persona are, in fact, true.
Leonard is first introduced after having just been fished out of the river by some good samaritans – the aftermath of what we learn from Mom (a heartbreaking Isabella Rossellini) and Dad (Israel's Moni Moshonov) to be one of many suicide attempts. The parents – a classic Jewish couple – are as loving as they are lovable, but they remain at an arm's length from Leonard, fearing that one wrong move could be the excuse he needs to do the unthinkable (there's a quiet anguish in both of their faces that suggests years of doctors' appointments and therapist visits). Their ultimate effort to save their functional-but-unstable son is to set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the saintly, kosher daughter of their best friends. Sandra is everything that Leonard needs: she's nurturing, non-judgmental and she's genuinely interested in him. This, of course, makes him less interested in her and more drawn to the toxic pursuit of Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gorgeous, unattainable neighbor with his same faulty wiring. Like an adolescent boy, Leonard leads Sandra on for safe keeping while he pines for Michelle, who in turn is sleeping with a married man and wears the obligatory blinders of a mistress (“he's going to leave his wife,” etc.).
The two simultaneous relationships are vastly different. Sandra, who sees Leonard's character flaws as an outlet for her compassion, invites him to dinner with her and her family. Michelle, who can't see Leonard's character flaws because she has so many of her own, invites him to dinner with her and her hitched boyfriend (to his dismay, Leonard remains Michelle's platonic confidant through much of the movie). But both women are almost immediately taken with Leonard and his irresistible boyish charms. He may be a novice in the game of life, but he's clearly experienced in the game of courtship, and Phoenix is especially good at vitalizing this aspect of his character. There's a remarkable segment in which Leonard joins Michelle and her friends for a night on the town. En route to a club, he tries to impress the gals by spitting rhymes, drawing a playful comparison to Phoenix's supposed new vocation. Once inside the bass-laden night spot, Leonard heads straight for the dance floor and breaks into a quick routine that's both slightly embarrassing and surprisingly skillful. The whole portion is brief but outstanding because Phoenix's work is so loose and free, as if the camera – which has a dance of its own and puts you in the party – weren't even rolling.
Gray has directed Phoenix twice before, in “We Own the Night” (2007) and “The Yards” (2000), but never like this. Though also set in Gray's home of New York, the previous movies were both crime dramas, while “Two Lovers” has the mood of a French film – and not just because of the exquisite music choices. The characters, like the plot, are fostered slowly but surely. Gray and co-writer Ric Menello layer these people with believable complexity, allowing them to become familiar but never wholly predictable (specifically, Leonard's rocky temperament creates moments of unexpected suspense – when his fantasies begin to crumble, we're uneasy and unsure of how he'll respond). And Gray gets great performances from the rest of his cast as well. Paltrow, her golden locks strewn about like heaven-straw, lights up the film the moment she appears and has the power to darken it, too. Shaw, a Hilary Swank look-alike who's leading lady material all the way, makes you wonder why the most you've seen of her lately is in bit parts in fare like “3:10 to Yuma.” And Rossellini and Moshonov create a screen duo to be cherished.
But the spotlight is rarely pulled away from Phoenix, the film's indisputable star. Throughout “Two Lovers,” I couldn't stop thinking about what a shame it is if Phoenix truly means business when he says he's quitting his.