It's likely that James Gray's Two Lovers would have gotten a lot less attention had it not been for Joaquin Phoenix's sudden downward spiral, lengthy beard, and subsequent turn to the rap industry, but beyond the Phoenix press fest, this is actually a film worth your attention.
When the lights dim we meet distraught, jilted Leonard (Phoenix), now living with his loving, compassionate parents in their Brooklyn apartment, and working for his father's dry cleaning business. Our introduction to him is leaden to say the least (I don't want to give much away), but it makes for an impactful opening sequence. One of the bigger problems with the film was actually the transition from this turbulent beginning (leading you down a certain road of expectation) into a lighter, comical side of Leonard. He's slightly schizophrenic, bouncing between exuberant, energetic charm and nervous, depressed tension. While this doesn't necessarily fit with his character, it is in keeping with Phoenix himself. Through much of the film you are treated to Leonard's constant mumbling and gum chewing, which all feel eerily familiar if you've seen the Letterman interview. These Leonard vs. Phoenix overlaps in character distracted me at first, but once the film got rolling, I was able to forget about Phoenix and focus on the pure, humble story at hand.
At the moment he needs it most, Leonard meets a woman, two actually. Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw (you might remember her from Ladybugs way back in the day) is sweet, sincere and very down to earth. She and Leonard are introduced by their parents at a dinner party, and her attraction to him is immediate, bordering on forward. From their first meeting it's clear that they have a chemistry, but he isn't stunned by her presence, and treats her from the start like an alternate player with potential. Shaw really stuck with me in this part. She is one of the highlights of the film, standing back as the demure brunette, shyly beautiful with sunken eyes (enhanced by make-up), and eagerly waiting for Leonard to make a move. Her quiet calming presence mirror's Leonard's mother (excellently played by Isabella Rossellini). She is there for him, to understand and to wait patiently for his affection. At no point do we see them fight or argue, all she wants is to take care of him. Shaw, who has a history of playing cinematic vixens in the past, shows her ability to do more than just flaunt what's on the surface.
The antithesis to Shaw's Sandra, is the bubbly blonde Michelle, played by former Hollywood Princess Gwyneth Paltrow. Leonard and Michelle meet as she hides out from her angry boyfriend. Tall, beautiful and damaged, Leonard falls for Michelle without hesitancy, instantly star struck. As she's busy rambling on about her ADHD, he's busy worshipping the ground she treads and planning their future. This clearly is a girl who's been inundated with male attention all her life, and has no qualms with encouraging the infatuation. When they part ways, any thoughts of Sandra still lingering in his mind have disappeared and been replaced with fantasies of unattainable Michelle. Paltrow, who's been noticeably absent from films since starting her family, returns to the big screen in Two Lovers ready to work, but a little out of practice. Granted her character is supposed to be a disaster, between her involvement with her married boss and frequent drug habit, but Paltrow still played her with less subtly that she could have. Despite the heavy handed performance, Paltrow remains as mesmerizing as ever on screen. She's played the manipulative blonde gazelle before in Great Expectations, but this time instead of being unshakably cool, she's pathetically naive and desperate, haplessly dragging others down with her.
Leonard begins to move forward with both women, much to the dismay of his parents who clearly favor Jewish family friend Sandra. He goes after Michelle in friendship, being that's all he's allowed, and wills it to be more by showing up at opportune moments and always making himself available. He and Sandra begin a tentative romance, only pushed forward by her deep crush. Leonard doesn't push her away, but he can't fully commit either. Neither woman knows of the other's existence, and as the movie progresses both come to depend and put their faith in a torn Leonard. The film takes on a surprisingly thriller quality due to pacing, music, lighting and of course acting. You never quite know if things are as simple as they seem or if suddenly someone will turn up dead. For a romantic drama, it definitely keeps you on the edge of your seat, very reminiscent of Woody Allen's Match Point. Overall the cinematography is a little all over the place. Sometimes you feel like you're watching an arsty indie drama, and other times a mainstream romantic comedy. But there are some really lovely shots, especially in the scenes of Paltrow and Phoenix on the roof. I get the feeling that James Gray had a lot of ideas in his head for the look and feel of the film, and that sometimes he got his wires crossed a little. However it all really does come together in the end. The plot, the acting, the look all fits well enough, that instead of leaving the theater thinking more about the technical issues I would have changed, all I could think about were the characters and how much I wanted to know more about them. I loved the story and how well it showed all our idiosyncratic behaviors in times of attraction. Most people have had feelings for someone that didn't return them or maybe even led someone on because it felt good to be appreciated, and Two Lovers really takes the time to show how humorous, sad, or even ridiculous these interactions can be.
Short and Sweet
While there are some inconsistencies both in technical aspects and characterization, Two Lovers really takes hold of you from the very beginning and keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end. Joaquin Phoenix shows us the beginnings of his now infamous break down, and leaves us with what will be a memorable last performance (if it is indeed his last). Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are wonderful female counterparts, aptly playing the roles of "angel" and "devil" to Phoenix's lost soul. The film ultimately falls more into the indie drama category, and leaves the audience with a lot to ponder about human interaction, and how one goes from here to a rapping career.
"I think I understand you."
"Leonard, you're like a brother to me."