Joaquin Phoenix stumbles through Brooklyn
by Molly Templeton
TWO LOVERS: Directed by James Gray. Written by James Gray and Richard Menello. Cinematography, Joaquin Baca-Asay. Editor, John Axelrad. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov. Magnolia Pictures, 2008. 108 min. R.
|Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers|
Whether you find Two Lovers an engrossing or an aggravating look at one man and the two women he’s in love with will likely depend on whether or not you find Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) more than the tiniest bit sympathetic. James Gray’s film slowly teases out the reasons why Leonard, who’s at least 30, is living with his parents. The specific details aren’t as important as the way they weigh on his mental state, cocooning him in a self-centered, lingering flurry of grief. He mumbles and stumbles, treading close to a teenager’s disregard for his parents (gracefully played by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) while obviously loving them at the same time. His life isn’t going right, but what “right” would be is maddeningly unclear.
In relatively quick succession, Leonard meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the couple who plan to buy out Leonard’s parents’ dry-cleaning shop, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a leggy blonde who lives upstairs. Sandra is a mystery, other than the fact that she’s sweet, intrigued by Leonard’s own mysteries and very much aware that their parents wanted them to meet. Their first conversation is overlaid with the suggestion of another, more old-fashioned era of parental involvement in courtship — and with the unmistakable feeling that they are far too old to be chatting amid the mess that is Leonard’s small bedroom in his parents’ Brighton Beach apartment. It’s nicely disconcerting but still unsatisfying: Who Sandra is, and why she’d be drawn to the shifty Leonard, never comes into focus. To Leonard, she’s stability, sweetness, a life planned out. But what is he to her?
Michelle, whom Leonard meets in the stairwell, draws something else out in Leonard, her lazy elegance pushing him to behave in ways he doesn’t behave around anyone else. Though Phoenix is a good actor, it’s Paltrow who finds the core of her character, a lively mess of a woman who turns the people around her into her guardians, her protectors, her confidantes — people who will take care of her when she refuses to take care of herself. She’s involved with a married man (Elias Koteas, perfect in a tiny role) and, cluelessly, asks Leonard for his perspective on whether he’ll leave his wife. She needs Leonard’s help for this, that or the other thing; she calls, and he instantly ditches lunch with Sandra. She’s magnetic, but you can see her holding something back, offering just enough of herself that Leonard believes he has a chance with her — while Sandra, guileless, hasn’t a clue what she’s up against.
Two Lovers is shot and lit gorgeously, from the comfortable but compact confines of Leonard’s parents’ house to the cold, spare environment on the buiding’s rooftop to the luxury of Michelle’s lover’s favorite restaurant. But with Leonard at its center, the movie pivots on a man you may simply want to shake until he snaps out of a doleful fantasy world in which everything is easy and he can do whatever he likes without consequence. Phoenix burns sourly, woundedly, but doesn’t convincingly convey the grief and confusion that would make Leonard understandable. Instead of sympathetic, he’s simply pathetic, an unsteady, overgrown boy focused solely on his own desires (the Village Voice, succinctly, called him a “tragic asshole”). Why either of these women would be drawn to Leonard in the first place is difficult enough to deduce; it’s all the more frustrating to then see one settle for him, for the movie never requires that Leonard own his flawed choices or his hurtful actions. He doesn’t get what he thinks he wants, but he does get what he doesn’t deserve.
Two Lovers opens Friday, March 27, at the Bijou.