Two Lovers (United States, 2008)February 26, 2009
With Two Lovers, director James Gray has remained geographically within his comfort zone (New York City), but has moved textually away from the crime and corruption-laced stories that have marked his previous efforts. This is strictly a character-based drama, and a strong, affecting one at that. The simplicity of the story is what imbues it with power. On some level, it speaks to everyone who has been in love, wished they were in love, or doubted the nature of their love. Two Lovers is about the nature of love and a recognition that sometimes following the fantasy is not the way to happiness. In the movies, romantic love conquers all. In reality, it's a little different, and that's what Gray is trying to show.
Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man with a disturbed past. The scars on his wrists indicate he has tried to kill himself and, as the film opens, he jumps off a bridge but changes his mind about drowning himself once he's in the water. Leonard lives with his father, Reuben (Moni Moshonov), and mother, Ruth (Isabella Rossellini), who are understandably concerned when Leonard arrives home soaking wet. But, while all his parents want is for Leonard to be happy, he sees their hovering as being overprotective and suffocating. Enter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Reuben's new business partner. Sandra is taken by Leonard but his attitude toward her is less certain. He is interested but not smitten. Instead, his attention is arrested by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a blonde shiksa who has moved into the apartment building next door and whose windows face Leonard's bedroom. While agreeing to date Sandra, Leonard contrives to meet Michelle at every opportunity. However, while his feelings for her are decidedly non-platonic, she just wants to be friends.
Although the core storyline of Two Lovers may sound like the outline of a soap opera (especially when one considers that Michelle is involved with a married man), the film is more observant and thoughtful than that. It also eschews glamour. The setting is Brooklyn and, while the characters are not scraping to make every last cent, there's none of the high-class bullshit that has become the stock and trade of too many New York-based motion pictures. Two Lovers does not play out on Madison Avenue. It takes place not in the tourist locations but in the neighborhoods where most people in the city live and work.
Ideally, one would not mention Joaquin Phoenix's bizarre off-screen antics when reviewing his performance here, but to do so would be to ignore the elephant in the room, especially since Leonard teeters on the edge of emotional and mental instability. Phoenix, making his third appearance in front of Gray's cameras, is solidly convincing as Leonard, but one has to wonder whether his immersion in this role is not as much of a stretch as might have once been suspected. His co-stars are equally credible: Vinessa Shaw as the demure, self-conscious woman who is always doubtful of where she stands with her boyfriend, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the vivacious but damaged Michelle.
Two Lovers is a study in contrasts. Where Sandra gives, Michelle takes. Sandra is an acceptable Jewish wife with traditional values; Michelle is a wild-card - blonde, non-Jewish, and definitely not the kind of woman Mom and Dad would approve of Leonard bringing home. Sandra is available; Michelle is potentially unattainable. Sandra represents reality for someone in Leonard's position; Michelle is the fantasy. The trajectory of the movie is in many ways predictable, with Leonard seemingly always chasing Michelle, then using Sandra as a fallback when Michelle disappoints him. Both Leonard and Michelle are selfish, although not so self-absorbed that they don't recognize and feel guilty when their actions hurt others. Sandra, who is oblivious to Leonard's dalliance with Michelle, is the only honest member of the lead triumvirate, but not the only sympathetic one. We feel for all three.
Gray's previous features, the most recent of which was We Own the Night, have been about family, crime, and corruption in New York. With Two Lovers, the writer/dirctor pares things down to the basics and spends the entire two hours examining these three individuals and how the dynamics of their relationships impact their lives and the lives of those around them. It's not bold but it is involving. The story unfolds with Leonard at the focal point, so we see things as filtered through his damaged perspective. The film is ultimately touching because, despite the bleakness of the setting and the often downbeat tone, it is in its own way life-affirming. It's about Leonard growing up and moving away from the tragedy of his failed suicide attempt. And Gray never resorts to melodramatic clichés to convey his points. The production is well grounded in reality. It may be a little too heavy to represent an ideal date movie, but it's an honest, adult romance that deserves recognition for not pandering to those on a quest for 90 minutes of escapism.
Two Lovers (United States, 2008)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1
Screenplay: James Gray & Richard Menello
Cinematography: Joaquin Baca-Asay