Movie Review: Two Lovers

Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini
Rated R
Release date: February 13th, 2009 (limited)

Two Lovers is a portrait of a sheltered soul on the verge of carrying out another attempt at suicide. The movie opens with him trying to commit suicide by jumping off the boardwalk into the ocean. He’s a man that can’t find enough motivation to uproot himself from a considerate mother and father so he can bestow himself to a world that would love nothing more than to see him happy in it. This man is capable of doing well, but has the tendency of making the wrong decisions. We see his well-being flourish when he works willingly at his parents’ dry cleaning business. We see it when he takes pictures with his camera. We see it when he expresses to others what’s truly inside himself. When two women, both of whom couldn’t be any more opposite of each other, enter his life, a new outlook is created. The man rarely wears a smile, but when he does he can illuminate an entire room.

The man’s name is Leonard. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix in what is a complicated role consisting of shifting emotions from shy to bashful, to anger, to happiness. That Phoenix pulls this performance off believably is reason to celebrate (given his recent identity crisis this can well be his last film).

His portrayal of Leonard, a man-child living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) in the Brighton Beach apartment complexes, endlessly inhabits the methods of acting carried out by Brando and De Niro. Leonard is a hybrid of Brando’s Terry Malloy and De Niro’s raging bull. Watching Phoenix mumble dialogue, flop as he walks, and shout outside the window of his apartment is a performance that is full of subdued vitality and its remnants can be seen flourishing in James Gray‘s direction.

Delicate stuff is at work here, very delicate stuff. It’s movies like Two Lovers, a tale about a complicated love triangle, that tend to get overlooked because it contains this delicacy of filmmaking and acting. Both of those are fused finely and seamlessly to form a movie that transcends the screen. All involved seem to be working so little that we forget we are watching a movie and instead find ourselves peering voyeuristically at a real life situation unfold before our very eyes. Scenes involving Leonard sitting at the dinner table with his parents are exact replicas of life’s everyday activities.

The situation involves Leonard caught between two lovers: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Sandra is the daughter of an owner of a dry cleaning business, just like Leonard is the son of one. Her father wants to buy his father’s business. Both families meet over dinner, lunch, and parties to discuss matters and each parent finds it may be a good idea that Sandra and Leonard begin to date. She’s a nice woman and wants to take care of him. She’s what he needs right now given his fragile state of mind. But a revelation comes to Leonard when Michelle enters into his life. She’s his next door neighbor in the apartment and they communicate with each other by yelling across the apartment building, window to window. Unlike Sandra, Michelle is a pill-popping party girl and has an ongoing affair with a man who is already settled in with a family. With this plot, director Gray depicts the troubles and choices that go along with finding love.

Two Lovers wants to break free from just being “˜good’ and descend above it to enter the realm of a great romantic drama. Though we wish for this, it never actually happens. Gray directs in a way that doesn’t allow for any explosion or revelation like his previous films did such as We Own the Night and The Yards. Two Lovers is drenched in a pool of timidity and that can be a good thing as the movie takes on a gut-wrenching tone. That only becomes apparent due to the characters’ emotions. Each of their feelings, for the most part, get in the way of expressing what they feel is right even if it could mean wrong.

Yet it can be said that the tides of emotion can be seen in the distance. Understanding that these tides will eventually come crashing to shore would be a safe assessment. Just like in an opera (which is a comparison to Gray’s filmmaking) where we wait until that last refrain of exaltation occurs and a thunderous clasp to end it culminates in a joyous conclusion. It is evident it is going to happen and is yet still so soothing to behold.

***1/2 of ****

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