A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, R, 108 mins.
2009, R, 108 mins.
Leonard: Joaquin Phoenix / Michelle: Gwyneth Paltrow / Sandra:
Vinessa Shaw / Mrs. Kraditor: Isabella Rossellini / Ronald:
Elias Koteas / Jose: John Ortiz
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.
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
and lust is not
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.