Film Review: Two Lovers

Joaquin Phoenix gives a heartbreakingly affecting performance in James Gray’s richly observed, truly character-driven romantic triangle.

In Two Lovers, director James Gray returns to the Brighton Beach, New York locale where he set his striking debut film, Little Odessa. It’s the tale of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), works in their dry-cleaning business and has just attempted suicide over the break-up of his engagement. His parents tiptoe cautiously around him with an unhelpful mixture of anxiousness and heavy solicitude, but Leonard really does pretty okay for himself. He has caught the interest of Sandra (Vinissa Shaw), the daughter of a man who wishes to join up the two families, both in marriage and business. He also has a frustrating BFF relationship (which he would love to take to the next level) with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a neighbor unhappily involved with a powerful married man, Ronald (Elias Koteas). Parental pressure and Leonard’s basic malleability soon have future wedding bells tolling for him and Sandra, but there’s that nagging enticement of Michelle, just across the courtyard, with her blonde mane and teasingly exposed breast.

Atmosphere is everything here, and Gray once more really captures the neighborhood, a flavorfully gritty, deceptively sequestering colony of Russian Jews which can benignly rule a young man’s entire destiny. Michelle represents the alluring possibilities of Manhattan just over the river and, in a scene where Leonard meets her and Ronald at a posh restaurant, Gray lavishes lush music on the soundtrack, magically investing Gotham with all of its impossibly unattainable glamour. It’s but one of several scenes which show that Leonard, for all his damage, is a surprisingly adaptable and savvy sort. He may mistakenly sip the stirrer in his Brandy Alexander, but he otherwise fits comfortably into this luxe setting, engendering one of those typical Manhattan moments of instant intimacy between him and Ronald, who confides that Michelle is a worrisome ex-junkie. Earlier on, when Leonard goes dancing with Michelle and her girlfriends, he demonstrates a fun, spunky verve in the back seat of the car and also an unexpectedly funky, winning grace on the floor that has them cheering him on.

Gray’s sensitive character observation is germane to his film’s compelling watchability, and in Phoenix he has the perfect, heartbreaking focus. Leonard is in the tradition of all those Paddy Chayefsky “Marty” types, but Phoenix also instills him with chameleonic smarts and humor which keep him from being a bathetic sad sack. As the emotional stakes rise in his involvement with the two girls, he never overdoes the desperation, but the look of ardor in his eyes in his scenes with Michelle is pure romance. He makes you really care about Leonard in a way that’s rare these days on the screen.

Shaw gives an attractively understated performance, but Paltrow, although she works hard, is frankly miscast. At this point, it’s hard to buy her as an uneducated diamond in the rough, the kind of role which Debra Winger once built a career on. Her icy, inevitable rich-girl perfection certainly makes her seem unattainable, but not in the way this movie really requires. Rossellini does what she can with the one-note role of watchful mama, but Moshonov rather overdoes it as an Old World paterfamilias. (He seems more 19th than 20th century.)