Directed by James Gray. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov, John Ortiz, Bob Ari, Elias Koteas. (2009, R, 110 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 27, 2009
Director Gray knows New York City like few other directors ever have. His films – Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night – glint and grunt with the seemingly effortless task of bringing this paradoxically grand and most bilious of metropolises to great gasping cinematic life. His stories are redolent with the always hard-won sweat of toil and lovemaking, and if he makes New York sing (or, just as often, cry out, whether in agony or ecstasy or some sublime combination of the two), it is most often accomplished through his characters and their endlessly fascinating, occasionally banal, and frequently despairing lives. Two Lovers reunites Gray with Phoenix in what may well turn out to be the actor's best performance, given that he's recently announced his intention to quit the cameras for the rapper's mic and, apparently, self-destruct in public. That's not relevant to Two Lovers, thankfully. Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a nebbishy, tic-bedeviled, heart- and head-sick man whom we first spy from a distance, attempting to end it all in Brighton Beach. Before the opening credits finish, Leonard remains, against his wishes, unfinished, and the rest of the film is spent illuminating, by degrees, the nature of his condition (lovesickness) and his growing attraction to two women: potential emotional rescuers and love interests both. The women couldn't be more different from each other, although they both fall, sort of, for the hapless Leonard in spite of themselves. Paltrow's wild, gamine socialite Michelle telegraphs her own emotional back static in her very first scene. She's a willowy Champagne girl carrying on a relationship with Koteas' married Park Avenue swell, and her relationship to Leonard moves in fits and starts, echoing the ricochets of her heart. Her opposite in all ways, and the girl most likely to succeed at the tug-of-war for Leonard's affections, is Shaw's smart, understated, lovely Sandra. Leonard's monosyllabic neuroses may match Michelle's scattered mindset, but it's the caregiver Sandra who seems the better, wiser fit. Two Lovers is an intensely felt, character-driven film, and there's no stronger character onscreen – not even Leonard – than Leonard's wise, Jewish mother, Ruth, played with effortless, pure perfection by Rossellini. Hovering over Leonard, not unkindly, Ruth is a mostly mute witness to her son's doleful romantic conundrum. Rossellini steals every scene she's in, but never to the detriment of the story. She's her mother's daughter here, in every darkly luminescent shot, Bergman-esque and brilliant. Phoenix, who begins the film looking as though he were a drippy, droopy Jonathan Haze, the iconic East Village schlemiel of Roger Corman's Little Shop of Horrors, ends up, when all is said and undone, looking not a little like God's lonely man, Thomas Wolfe and Travis Bickle combined, not king of the city nor even a fool but more like a pauper in the court of love, destitute and famished and craving kisses that never quite come.