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Leonard Kraditor is a burned-out case, living with his immigrant parents after his fiancée left him, helping out at their Brooklyn dry cleaners, taking photographs, at loose ends, suicidal. In quick succession, he meets two women: Sandra, the daughter of his parents' business associates, frank, direct, sensual, Jewish like Leonard; and, his neighbor Michelle, mercurial, rootless, fun, blond, unattainable. Michelle is in love with a married man and cries on Leonard's shoulder; Sandra wants to save him. Is Leonard willing to risk losing Sandra's fidelity for the moments Michelle's moods swing toward him? Can this end well? Written by
Gwyneth Paltrow is like Italian ice cream on a summer day. Vinessa Shaw is like hot chocolate on a winter morning. Why can't I have them both? It's just not fair!
Here's an intensely absorbing indie-film, being released simultaneously in a few select cities and on digital pay-per-view. That seems to be a popular new way for smaller films to reach larger audiences. And believe me, "Two Lovers" deserves as large an audience as it can get. This will definitely end up being one of the best films of 2009.
The title and the trailer make it evident that this is a romantic drama in which one man is torn between two very different women. That man is Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix), a generally introverted man who has moved back in with his parents after a failed relationship. He is interested in black and white photography, but works in his father's dry-cleaning business. He is governed by depression, fending off thoughts of suicide with prescription medicine.
His parent's friends are also in the cleaning industry and they are considering a possible merge, which Leonard could one day take over. Their beautiful daughter is Sandra (Shaw), who is soon "fixed up" with Leonard. They nervously take the first steps into a new relationship, soon developing a comfortable rhythm that feels cathartic and safe for both.
Soon thereafter, Leonard stumbles into Michelle (Paltrow), an energetic blonde who moves into an apartment on the floor above. She is hyperactive and fun, representing a slightly more dangerous undertaking for Leonard. She becomes an even more enticing challenge when he finds out that she is kept by a wealthy married lawyer who repeatedly promises that he will leave his family for her.
One girl is safe and comfortable. The other is unattainable and risky. The film follows the labyrinthine emotional maze that Leonard has to navigate in order to find out what will make him the happiest. It is a fascinating journey that pulls the viewer back and forth as we try to make his decision for him.
Phoenix is naturally one of the most emotionally weighty performers in recent memory. He almost always carries around an anvil of angst in his roles -- and it is on full display here. Leonard balances on the edge of torment and ecstasy, never managing to fully commit to either. It is a marvelous effort -- I only hope it is not his last film, as he has recently hinted in interviews.
Paltrow is this critic's idea of silver-screen heaven. She lights up the screen in ways that render the film projector completely unnecessary. This is one of her most emotionally charged roles since "Hard Eight". Her character is scarred and needy, hidden beneath a veneer of nonchalant smiles. The part was written with Paltrow in mind
she absolutely does it justice.
I have been crazy about Vinessa Shaw since I first saw her as Domino in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut". She has a serene quality that fits this role perfectly. I am not sure there is an actress who can emote as subtly as Shaw can. As Sandra, she represents the hope for a peaceful, kind and safe existence with Leonard. It is just a matter of convincing him that those things are what he wants. Shaw is remarkable in every scene and deserves award consideration.
Heck, all three of them should be considered when Oscar rolls around in 2010. This is an ensemble, which includes a superb turn by Isabella Rossellini as Leonard's mother, that ranks as one of the best of the decade. "Two Lovers" is an actor's film -- allowing them to live and breathe on screen. The characters are fully realized, three-dimensional people who we can care about long after the fade-to-black.
James Gray is a patient director. His work includes "The Yards" and "We Own the Night". He is unafraid to let the characters develop without feeling the urge to stamp his name all over the production with needless flare. He is confident enough to let his writing do the work. Gray is fast becoming one of the more intriguing talents in the business.
"Two Lovers" is an honest and authentic film that requires a thoughtful, attentive and mature audience. The emotions are complex. The consequences are tangible. I really cared about what happened to these characters. How often can you say that about a movie? Absolutely do whatever you can to find this independent gem.
TC Candler's Movie Reviews
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