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Perhaps, the most startling aspect of "Two Lovers" is Joaquin Phoenix's performance. Superb. I haven't really liked any of the James Gray's films, until now that is. There is something profoundly moving and profoundly truthful here and I'm sure it has to do with Phoenix's portrayal. Gwynneth Paltrow is wonderful as the girl walking an emotional tightrope. And Vinessa Shaw is a real find. I was also moved by Isabella Rossellini as Joaquin's mother! Beautiful and intense but unlike many of her contemporaries not "cosmetic" A real extraordinary face. In fact she looks more like her mother Ingrid Bergman now than she ever did. So, a smart, romantic "dramedy" with wonderful performances. When was the last time I was able to say that? Go see it and tell me if you think I'm exaggerating at all.
Gray's fourth film, his first without a crime element, is amazing, and
surprises even with its title. It's a triumph for Joaquin Phoenix, who
provides a remarkably giving and open performance even though the
character he plays, Leonard Kraditor, is opaque. He's a damaged,
emotionally unstable man with attempted suicides in his past: the film,
cheerlessly--yet ironically--begins with yet another one. He does know
his own sad history, dominated by a broken engagement. On medication
for bi-polar disorder, he's been reduced to living with his parents in
the Russian and Jewish community of Brighton Beach, Gray's home
territory, site of 'Little Odessa,' his distinctive little first film
and equally of his subsequent, more grandiloquent ones. (The last, 'We
Own the Night', also starred Phoenix.) Leonard doesn't know who he is
or what he wants. He may not dare to want anything. He's working,
fumblingly, in the dry cleaning establishment on the ground floor
that's owned by his Pop, Reuben (Moni Moshikov). He's lost clothes
making deliveries; and he's lost himself.
A friend of Leonard's father, Michael Cohen (Bob Ari) has a small chain of dry cleaners Pop's going to merge with. Cohen has a daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), whom the parents have set up with Leonard. He's only a little interested. But he does take her into his little boy's bedroom to show her his black and white photographs of destroyed shopfronts. He's so needy, he welcomes any attention. Sandra is very interested in him. She finds him not odd, but special. And she has a sweetness about her than lingers in the mind.
But then another woman unexpectedly appears: a new neighbor, the blond and dangerous Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Even at their first meeting in the hallway she's in trouble, being verbally abused by her visiting father, and in need of comfort and protection. And from then on whenever Michelle calls on Leonard, however bad the time or awkward the occasion, he can never say no. She's pretty, even glamorous, but also unhealthy. She's been on drugs. Leonard can see her window upstairs from his room, and she becomes a glittering object of desire, so near and yet so far. Because he wants her, but she thinks of him from the first as like a brother.
So there are the "two lovers"--Leonard's two women, Sandra, who knows his problems and wants to take care of him, and Michelle, who knows them and takes advantage to make him a comforting pillow in her troubles with Ronald (Elias Koteas), her married lawyer boyfriend. Michelle has Leonard come to a fancy restaurant to meet Ronald and size him up, tell her if he thinks Ronald will ever leave his wife. Instead, while Michelle's in the ladies' room, Ron asks Leonard to watch out for her and see that she's not using again. Then Michelle and Ron go off to his firm's box at the Met and leave Leonard in the company limo. It's a sobering moment that defines Leonard's lostness and the film's originality.
Leonard seems a misfit and a loser, but when Michelle takes him clubbing, he does some rapping in the car and break-dances wildly; he's got some game, somewhere. He also has those strong Jewish Russian family ties that run through Gray's films but don't save his protagonists from disaster. His mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini, with a severe haircut) watches kindly over him and both his Pop and Cohen are ready to look out for him too. Shooting photos at Cohen's son's bar mitzvah, Leonard is part of a community, however awkwardly. He meets Michelle up on the roof. She doesn't fit in. But he wants her desperately. Meanwhile Sandra declares her love to him at a beach-side restaurant with complicated blue napkins.
'Two Lovers' is aswarm with an elaborate sound design that can be obtrusive. Background music overwhelms conversation at a family gathering, and an echoing passage from 'Cavalleria rusticana' is a bit overdone. It's more firmly glued together by images of long subway rides and dark expensive cars. Though the latter may seem leftovers from Gray's 'The Yards' and 'We Own the Night,' Gray has done a good job of downsizing from those while holding onto their resonance.
Joaquin Phoenix's performance is awkward in a way that would be very painful if it didn't feel so authentic and real. His Leonard is pathetic and lost, but has an inner core of goodness and generosity that makes it seem there may be hope for him. He's a real sucker, but he's a real decent fellow. Leonard has nothing, and so he is ready to throw away his life and throw it away again. Gray goes back to the smallness of his first film, but with a far greater intensity. Leonard's crises feel momentous. Their resolution is a quiet, mute shock. As in other Gray films, the hero blends into a party, and a family network. This time the sense of family and ritual is more offhand and organic than in the preceding two films.
'Two Lovers' has powerful moments. It's like a good short story and it has a surprise O. Henry ending. The performances are uniformly fine. The texture is thick enough with a sense of people and places to override some implausibility in the events. Phoenix's performance will have detractors who find Phoenix too awkward and say it's just as well he plans to quit acting after this for music. But on the contrary this movie made me see how disarming and unique the actor, once overshadowed by his dazzling brother River, has come to be at 35. It would be sad if he left the screen.
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
As this film began, I thought, "What have I gotten myself into?"
Joaquin Phoenix playing a character, Leonard, who attempts suicide
before the lights in the theater are down? This is going to be a long
ride and my shoulders slumped into the seat. But, instead, this funny,
romantic intensely felt film slowly takes control of the audience and
we shake our heads both in recognition of the folly of the characters
as well as the exactitude with which the actors hit each and every
mark. I wanted to applaud at the end for (1) the sustained tone, and
(2)that it wasn't the film I feared at the opening.
Isabella Rosellini, as Leonard's mother, quickly lightens up the mood. (I should say, The Great Isabella Rosellini.) She has little to say but communicates volumes as a doting mother of a very troubled son. But she's also very funny in her hovering (literally peering under her son's door to see if he's okay).
What triggers the action is the introduction of a girl Sandra (played by Vinessa Shaw) chosen by Leonard's parents to divert him from the heartbreak that has made him suicidal. She's a perfect choice, and we all nod, "This won't work," because she's exactly what Leonard needs. He's so caught up in his suffering that he can't see anything beyond that until supreme suffering simultaneously walks into his life: Her name is Michelle, and she's played by the exquisite Gwyneth Paltrow.
If you're a fan of Paltrow's, you know just how Leonard feels. He's ready to jump through any hoop just to be near Michelle, and wouldn't any of us? Paltrow gives such a winning performance of what none of us need and all of us want, that even by the end we want everything to revolve around her (as Michelle wants too).
This is not only a film about infatuation with various stages and maturity of love, it's also about a place, and that place is New York City. With wonderful and flakey choices on the soundtrack, New York is cupid's hell. From the excitement of a group of people off on a lark to a dance club to one of the most unusual first dates in a high brow Manhattan restaurant (lushly scored with Henry Mancini's "Lujon") each and every locale is a Valentine to how much trouble you can get into in the big city. Watch out for those Michelles! Beautifully filmed, masterfully directed, being released so soon after the Oscar awards, the only sad thing is that it wasn't released just a few months earlier.
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
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.
This was the first time I saw a film from James Gray and it was a great surprise. I don't usually go to the movies because of the critics but the fact that all the critics were great and that both orthodoxes and heterodox had liked got me a little intrigued. I still don't get all the good critics. It's not at all a romantic movie. It's rather a film of someone messed up struggling hard to survive and trying to do it through messed up relationships. It's really well filmed, and both James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix passed a lot of tension. If you want to go to the movies and relax that's really not the indicated piece. This is more for those who are looking for a real human movie with well worked personages.
James Gray's latest film tells the tale of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin
Phoenix), a man who had a problematic break-up with his fiancée two
years ago, and has since been heading down a suicidal road. 4-months
into living back home with his anxious parents (played by Moni Moshonov
and Isabella Rossellini) and helping out at his father's dry-cleaning
business, Leonard is introduced to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a sweet
daughter of his father's business friend. Wearing her heart on her
sleeve, Leonard has moments of true spark with her, and you can see his
eyes changing away from the torment inside. A woman is surely the right
thing for Leonard, as he carves through the days with a worn-out heart
and a mind in loneliness. Soon after meeting Sandra, he befriends
Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful but messed-up girl that's
dating her married boss (played by Elias Koteas). With her, Leonard
sees an escape, and a burning romance. Leonard's mind is now set on two
women, and he finds himself torn between them.
James Gray hadn't really impressed me with his earlier films, for me they all lacked out on the intensity and became standard crime-thrillers. With his latest melodramatic romance, he really surprised me; he does a caring job directing the three performers, and he tells a strange and tender story. The music of the film is Jewish guitar-instrumentals that are carefully intertwined, but most of the film has got a blanket of quiet bleakness, and it's covering every little corner.
The performances of Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are great, and although the two never share screen-space, director Gray naturally and carefully shifts between the two lives Leonard is living, and so the two of them add lovely pieces to the story. But it's in-between the double relationship the film and its protagonist is living, the film has to connect, and it couldn't have been done better than by Joaquin Phoenix. Leonard is a suicidal depressive that enters human-bounding and the give & receive of it, and this is a very difficult character to portray - but just look at Phoenix, he is phenomenal; the incredible naturalism of it shows Phoenix in the performance of his career.
The melancholy of the film doesn't make it for the dominant audience, but I've never even cared a bit for that, and it's a delight that romance on screen can be thrown upon like this. 'Two Lovers' is a small film with a heart that's full of rare atmosphere, the form of it is tearing and in center, a superb Joaquin Phoenix.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Greetings again from the darkness. This is not your typical love story
and most certainly not a typical chick flick. It is an odd story about
some odd people ... not they are evil or exotic or anything so romantic
... just odd. Or maybe the fact that they are actually so normal is
what makes them seem so odd? Most movies are about the eccentric types,
not the everyday lonely-hearts just trying to find their way.
Director James Gray has a couple of nice credits to his name with "We Own the Night" and "Little Odessa". He obviously believes in Joaquin Phoenix as an actor, and rightly so. While Mr. Phoenix doesn't make for much of a talk show guest, he is unquestionably a top notch actor. Sadly, the two best actors in the 30-35 age group are now no longer acting. Heath Ledger is dead and Joaquin is turning hip-hop. Two losses for movie lovers.
Somehow this story had me caring about these three characters even though I found nothing really appealing about any of them. Phoenix's character is clinically diagnosed, Gwyneth Paltrow's character is a misguided mess and Vinessa Shaw is somehow attracted to the loopy and off-kilter Phoenix, proclaiming she will take care of him.
Toss in the always interesting Elias Koteas and Isabella Rossallini and we see how the pain, uncertainty and loneliness runs through so many. An understated Rossallini perfectly captures the desperate longings of a mother who just wants her son to be happy and normal. Koteas' character could have used another scene, but he is powerful in the restaurant.
Many will find fault with the ending, but I found it to be fitting and just. Paltrow chasing her dream, Shaw getting what she wants and Phoenix taking a shot at life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's not uncommon for me to disagree with the critical and/or popular
consensus concerning a given movie, but usually if I dislike a movie
that other people admire I can at least recognize what they see in it.
But for the life of me I can't read or hear anybody praising this movie
as "romantic" or "sensitive" or "touching" without shouting "WHAT THE
F*$% IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?" "Two Lovers" is hollow, false, manipulative
trash. It trades on the (utterly FALSE) stereotype that depressed,
uncommunicative, inert people are "deep" and "tormented" rather than
Leonard is "artistic" simply because he uses black and white film in his camera? Please. His humiliating neglect of Sandra somehow leads to her saying "You're so kind to me"? You're f%$&*%$ kidding me. Michelle is damaged enough that yeah, she might get herself mixed up with a trainwreck like Leonard. Maybe the filmmakers intended to show us that Sandra was ALSO emotionally crippled, thus explaining why she turns all of his abuse and neglect into "he loves me!" (like Krazy Kat getting hit in the head with Ignatz's bricks, which she receives as kisses), but I missed it. If Leonard's parents are so blind that they can't see that their son is a basket case, are Sandra's parents also so indifferent to the hell that their daughter will end up enduring, if she marries this man? When Sandra's father asks Leonard point blank "Are you a f#$%-up?", I wanted to shout at the screen "YES HE IS! You know that too, or else you wouldn't be asking!"
The only way I could possibly consider this movie to be a success on any level is if I were told that the filmmakers INTENDED us to see Leonard as a monster, and that the audience is INTENDED to view the uncomprehending ignorance of this fact by everyone around him with revulsion.
I liked this fourth film of James Gray very much. It is interesting,
nuanced, well photographed and directed. The casting is very fitting:
Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Isabella Rossellini require no
introduction - every film where they appeared was a kind of success.
I liked the story line precisely for the reasons some of the critics did not - inconclusiveness of the situation. The narrative should not be treated as a moral tale with prescribed behavior and a suggestion to act certain way. For some of us, who lived and experienced, life situations have no clear conclusions, especially in the matter concerning personal relationships. And so we are shown various geometrical configurations of relationships between people: A loves B, B loves C, C loves D; D perhaps does not love anyone; C can not settle for B and returns to D when D calls; B settles for A. Who's right and who's wrong? Luckily this is not all there is about this film. There are interesting shots, exotic locations (Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY), very good acting.
Some reviewers complained that the narrative is too predictable - perhaps. I personally would prefer more broader metaphor, perhaps more connection with social dimension, more resonance between personal and social. Oh well, I hope this is coming in the next Gray's films.
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