A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #15


2009, R, 108 mins.

Leonard: Joaquin Phoenix / Michelle: Gwyneth Paltrow / Sandra: Vinessa Shaw / Mrs. Kraditor: Isabella Rossellini / Ronald: Elias Koteas / Jose: John Ortiz

Directed by James Gray / Written by Gray and Richard Menello

James Gray’s TWO LOVERS is one of the most perceptive films I have seen about the subtle and oftentimes haunting nuances of male lust.  Too often I have been subjected to dry, rudimentary, and formulaic romantic melodramas where we see love almost on the level of fantasy: unapologetic adoration for another human being conquers all in the end, which leads to the obligatory conclusion that both parties will live happily ever after.  

TWO LOVERS does not have time for such petty and overused genre clichés; instead, it shows how one lonely and sick man’s deep and burning desire for the love of a woman whom he things is the perfect medicine for him is, in actuality, the least appropriate and healthy choice for him.  Gray’s film intuitively comments on the very practical notion that men will – often when they are at their most desperate – cling on to the idea that a completely unattainable woman is a person they really love.  Yearning and lust is not romantic love.

Gray himself may look like he is dealing with material that seems familiar to anyone that knows his past work (geographically, the film is centered in New York, a focal point for his LITTLE ODESSA and for WE OWN THE NIGHT), but his thematic crosshairs take an uncharacteristic focus.  In TWO LOVERS – based loosely on Dostoevsky’s WHITE NIGHTS – Gray abandons looking at social-cultural themes of crime and corruption and instead looks at the true nature of love by portraying it through the lenses of the film’s flawed and troubled characters.  

In many ways, the film is a small masterpiece of human observation in the way that Gray slowly and systematically builds on all of the motions that some men go through when their curiosity for a beautiful woman forges ahead in to blind obsession.  The man in the film covers his action, tells willful lies, rearranges everything in his personal schedule to lead a duplicitous life, and ultimately – and with complete conviction – sees one inaccessible woman as the cure to all of his ills, regardless of the personal consequences that would arrive with having a relationship with her.  TWO LOVERS is skillfully discerning when it comes to showing how people sometimes don’t fall in love, per se, but rather force themselves into believing that they are in love, which leads to emotionally tortuous costs. 

The uneasy and disturbed male character in question is Leonard and he is played in his self-professed "last" on-screen performance of excruciatingly raw sentiment by Joaquin Phoenix.  I say this is his "last" film because, earlier in the year, the actor claimed to be retiring from the professional altogether to inexplicably peruse a hip-hop career.  This, of course, led to a scandalous amount of press for the actor in his post-movie career, especially when he began given a series of implacably bizarre interviews where he looked more like a reincarnated, drunken Jim Morrison.  Then he made that utterly unforgettable – and embarrassing – appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman on February 9 this year to promote TWO LOVERS, during which he emerged as monosyllabic, gruff, and unresponsive the most basic of questions.  I mean…was it a joke and a brilliant bit of performance theatre on his part…or was he seriously nutty?

I dunno.  One thing is for certain: Phoenix’s turn as Leonard in TWO LOVERS is the most convincing, heartbreaking, and evocative portrayals of a man’s ever-growing emotional and mental instability that will likely to emerge this year…or any year for that matter.  What is so calculating and brilliant about his performance is how he never manages to telegraph a scene for a predictable emotional payoff: there is a euphoric sense of exploration with his performance in the sense that, as audience members, we never truly feel one step ahead of Leonard.  This is a vulnerable, self-doubting, and battered human being that thinks he is able to forget all of his past ill-fated romances by letting himself become embroiled in a series of entanglements that will unavoidable do more harm than good.  Phoenix’s dark, somber, and quietly intoxicating performance reminded me sharply of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER: both characters feel trapped by an uncomfortable level of isolation and loneliness from their New York surroundings and both let their alienation from the outside world fester into doomed relationships with women.  Granted, the methods both men use to lure women are decidedly different, but the level of soul crushing rejection both feel is equally demoralizing. 

Leonard, even more than Bickle, is damaged goods right from the get go: At the beginning of the film we see him walking along the foot of a bridge over Sheepshead Bay creek in Brooklyn (which Grey’s cinematographer, Joaquin Baca-Asay, shoots with a shadowy, antiquated luster, which is meant to mirror Leonard’s sense of dreariness).   He jumps into the water and tries to commit suicide, but he soon changes his mind and surfaces nearby to a huge enclave of spectators.  Dripping wet and terribly discouraged, Leonard heads home to his Russian Jewish neighborhood in Brighton Beach where his mother (Isabella Rossellini) and father (Moni Moshonov) look on him with worry and anxiety. 

This is not Leonard’s first attempt at killing himself: years earlier his fiancé dumped him and left him so distraught and depressed that he moved back to his childhood home and bedroom and took a semi-demeaning job working as a courier for his dad’s dry cleaning business.  Leonard’s mother and father are kind, caring, and deeply nurturing of their son’s happiness, but Leonard sometimes feels suffocated by their attempts.  He becomes even more overwhelmed when his dad’s new business partner conveniently introduces Leonard to his pretty and single daughter, Sandra  (Vinessa Shaw) who seems very interested in him.  He seems outwardly smitten with her, but underneath it all his heart is not really in dating this woman.  The parents have other plans as they see that combining dry cleaning establishments would be ideal and that Leonard and Sandra’s courtship would be equally idyllic. 

Leonard has other plans: One fateful day he becomes instantly infatuated with a blond bombshell who has recently moved in next door named Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who soon becomes an angelic figure to him during his moments of internalized misery (just as, say, Cybill Shepherd was to De Niro in TAXI DRIVER).  Things get complicated for Leonard in the sense that he agrees to date Sandra, at the jubilation of his parents, but secretly he tries to spend as much of his time with Michelle.  To him, at least on the surface, she is a perfect and accessible goddess, but the more time he spends with her – and surreptitiously without the knowledge of Sandra – the more Leonard begins to see that this “perfect” woman is equally bruised and mentally unstable.  She behaves erratically and impulsively, habitually abuses drugs, and is an adulterer: she is dating a married partner at the law firm she works for named Ronald (Elias Koteas), which complicates matters intensely.  She only wants Leonard as a friend and as a voice of reason in terms of instructing her on the best way to get Ronald to leave his wife for her.  Leonard wants Michelle all to his own and his lust for her soon overrides all other impulses.

The way that Gray displays Leonard’s self-destructive spiral in terms of how he forces himself into an unnecessary love triangle is one of TWO LOVERS most magnificently handled elements.  Leonard’s actions and choices are unnecessary in the sense that they are avoidable: he has a beautiful and caring woman in Sandra that seems to accept him for who he is, but instead of reciprocating love back to her he allows himself to be fixated on a different woman that never once seems like an appropriate option.  The fantasy of perusing Michelle drives Leonard’s impulses, whereas the reality of a happy courtship with the more grounded and well off Sandra is harmfully ignored.  Without acknowledging too much of what happens in the film’s final act, TWO LOVERS demonstrates an unusually predilection to patience: it leisurely lets its character intersect with one another and as the film draws towards a powerfully executed conclusion that is simultaneously dark and uplifting (a tricky dichotomy to pull off), it materializes as one that puts more stock on the emotions of its characters first and less by the standard elements that make up so many witless and banal romances.   The film has an almost European fascination with its focus: narrative and pacing is unhurried and spontaneous, the direction is clean, precise, and restrained, and the film’s secrets are divulged naturally.   Unlike other comparable and recent genre efforts, TWO LOVERS never feels like it’s taking the traditional route.

Grey also trusts his audience for how densely and securely he places a psychological complexity to most of his personas; most of the characters rarely feel like assemble line, cardboard cutouts at the service of the story.  The easy route for the film would have been to make Sandra insanely jealous over Leonard’s advances and intentions towards Michelle, but the screenplay manages to brilliantly deal with it without succumbing to routine and formulaic moments of revelation.  Michelle is a tremendously flawed and imperfect figure in Leonard’s life and – as is the case in life – she seems void of changing herself for the better.  Two other characters in particular are exemplarily handled in unexpected ways: Elias Koteas’ lawyer that has an affair with Michelle could have easily been developed as yet another in the long line of abusive, duplicitous, and hateful attorney characters, but TWO LOVERS portrays him too as a man of inner pains and apprehension.  And then there is Isabella Rossellini’s pitch perfect portrayal of Leonard’s mother, which completely goes against the grain of most motherly figures in films like this: Just watch a key moment when she discovers Leonard’s desire to end it with Sandra so he can  peruse Michelle, a woman that she hardly knows.  The manner with which she responds to her son is unpredictably poignant and profoundly touching.  

If there were one negative thing I would impose on TWO LOVERS then it would be that Joaquin Phoenix’s wacky and outlandish public off-screen behavior during and after the film’s release this year almost overshadows its worth.  Yet, if this is indeed his last performance (yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it) then it would be a large shame, as his superbly unnerving and invigorating work in TWO LOVERS is Oscar caliber, as is Paltrow’s thankless portrayal of her neurotic and equally deranged character: she has rarely been so believably deranged and distressed (she is a nice reflection of Leonard’s own internalized pains).  Vinessa Shaw may have the hardest part playing a smart, gorgeous, and understanding woman that projects a love and sympathy for Leonard that most women would not.  In due course, TWO LOVERS is like a welcome antidote to so many of the other monotonous and prosaic romances that we have all seen too many times before: Gray’s film is superlatively acted, exquisitely paced, unpretentiously shot, and it shows a real wisdom in knowing that the thought of real love and romance does not lead to easy happiness.  Love is often a dark force. 

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