Screenwriters: James Gray, Ric Menello
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini
Running Time: 110 mins
The jury's still out on whether Joaquin Phoenix's nascent rap career is genuine or an ambitious celebrity satire cooked up in cahoots with Casey Affleck (who's documenting the transition with a film crew), but Two Lovers, his supposed acting swansong, underlines his talent and the fact that he's probably been taken for granted as an actor. If he truly is abandoning cinema, then at least he's going out on a high.
In Two Lovers, Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a lumbering wreck living with his parents in Brooklyn after a tumultuous break-up. He works for a dry cleaning firm owned by his father Moni, who's eager to cement a takeover deal with a larger firm to secure his retirement. To smooth proceedings along, he and prospective buyer Michael (Bob Ari) essentially arrange a marriage between Leonard and Michael's daughter Sandra (Shaw). The romantic entanglement is complicated when Leonard falls for his new neighbour, the fast-derailing city girl Michelle (Paltrow).
This is director James Gray's third collaboration with Phoenix, and here they shift terrain from the New York criminal fraternity of The Yards and We Own The Night to introspective relationship drama. Gray rips his leading man inside out, turning him from a recluse into an unlikely ladies' man. The transformation is far-fetched within the grounded world Gray navigates, but Phoenix sells every moment. Far from the bombast of Johnny Cash, through his low-key approach he conveys character facets that have rarely been on display before: charm and humour. His oddball charisma is in full swing when he awkwardly engineers a meeting with Michelle at a subway station and joins her for a night of clubbing in Manhattan.
Leonard sees in Michelle everything that Sandra can't give him. Her wildness and unpredictability (she has an ecstasy habit and is seeing a married man) make her more alluring than Plain Jane Sandra. At one point Sandra tells Leonard that she wants to take care of him; mirroring how he feels about Michelle. The dilemma presented finds a resolution of sorts, but Leonard's life beyond the end credits is still in doubt as Gray hints towards future uncertainty. However, the choice he makes will likely save him from a relationship implosion as violent as Revolutionary Road's.
Two Lovers is perhaps less than the sum of its parts. It has firecracker performances from Phoenix and Paltrow (surprisingly good as a bad girl), but Shaw is cast adrift with Sandra never feeling like a three-dimensional character. She is present as a point of conflict, but it's difficult to see how she's exerting any pull on Leonard. Isabella Rossellini gives a layered performance as the Kraditor matriarch; she understands her son's inner turmoil and is willing to cut him loose for the sake of his, and the detriment of her, happiness. Despite its many strengths, Two Lovers's pared down, bleak outlook on relationships makes it feel like an enterprise that would have work better as an intimate three-hand stage play than writ large on the silver screen.
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