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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
What film-making should be--another seamless collaboration of Gray and Phoenix
As I watched, and enjoyed Two Lovers, it became clear why this was a limited release film, why early reviews predicted Hollywood wouldn't much know what to do with it. This is a mature, thoughtful, well-made, well-paced, and very well-acted film. And while I don't think that there aren't mature, thoughtful audiences out there, studios can sometimes not give them much credit. But as I watched Two Lovers it revealed itself as few modern movies do, the director, James Gray, is the guide but has an invisible touch. The story is simple but powerful in its reflection on love and choices, as guided by fate and impossibility.
Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is a young man in his early 30's who has moved in with his parents following a devastating broken engagement and a suicide attempt. His parents are concerned over his fragility and mental stability (there are whisperings of depression and possibly bi-polar disorder) and encourage his involvement with family friend Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) a young woman more than willing to "take care of him." But when Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his neighbor across the courtyard, he soon becomes smitten with the fun, enticing blonde. As both relationships progress and provide further complications (Michelle's other involvements, the business opportunities a life with Sandra will provide) a simply put but tremendously complex question is posed: do you choose the one you love or the one who loves you?
Like Gray's past films, notably The Yards and We Own the night for this viewer who has yet to see Little Odessa, this doesn't fashion a predictable run. Some filmmakers may have leaned towards a more typical romance, with clear-cut characters, a couple to root for and a happy ending. Like his past films, Gray's characters feel real, flawed, whose actions yield personal consequences. Its ending will leave some viewers inferring a hopeful conclusion, others a tragic one. The story was moving, at times funny, at times profound, and deeply affecting.
Of course, it's impossible to praise the film without focusing on Joaquin Phoenix's performance. Given Gray's propensity to write for him, their mutual praise, and the phenomenal portrayals that result, one can only deduce that this was a pairing fated to happen. Gray knows how to write human, imperfect, complicated, conflicting lead roles and equally or perhaps more importantly, Phoenix knows how to bring them to life. His Leonard is sometimes a sad, tragic figure but at turns can fill the screen with so much light and so much charisma you almost wonder, for a moment, why there aren't more than two women chasing after this troubled young man who lives with his parents. In a scene in a car with Michelle and her friends leading into a surprisingly sexy dance scene in a club, Phoenix's boyish, natural charm wins the women over in impressively little time. Leonard also is a bit socially awkward, playful, but clumsy and seemingly out of place with the world, Joaquin plays this wonderfully and very believably, but it did inspire a reaction from my viewing mate that I found rather entertaining. She remarked that Joaquin is so handsome and has such a stunning, intense look, that to see him play a bit of a socially inept, goofy character didn't suit his looks. She may have a point, in that his looks seem more suited to his We Own the Night character--confident, cool. But nothing could detract from his performance here. He is certainly the heart of the film, and adds a quietness and depth to Leonard that made me eager for future viewings. And to add something that stands out to me here, there is something so genuine about Phoenix's emotional, crying scenes that it catches me off guard and seems to within instant make so many other actors' "crying" scenes seem like artifice. Perhaps it's a further glean into his gift as an actor, but something so tender is revealed in these moments, it brings great humanity to those scenes.
The rest of the cast does very well. This is Gwyneth's best work in years, perhaps her best role as well, she doesn't disappoint. Shaw's beauty is toned down, which helps in making her less of a stunner and more a nice-looking local girl who's instantly attracted to Leonard's shy charm. Both Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, as Leonard's parents, are great opposite Phoenix, the three share a believable comfort with each other.
Two Lovers is a great character-driven drama centering on a troubled young man's impossible choice to either try for a life he never knew he could have, or the one he feels he's intended to have. This is elegant film-making with moving drama, a great cast, and another masterful performance from Phoenix, again completely in-sync with Gray's storytelling. Theirs is a seamless collaboration.
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