Friday, March 13, 2009

Two Lovers (***)

Directed by James Gray


You'd think something along the lines of "Joaquin Phoenix's final performance" would have a bit of esteem to it, but you wouldn't know because Phoenix has gone out of his way to throw his reputation in the trash by working on something that may or may not be a fake art experiment. If I were financial backer for Two Lovers I would be none to happy to see how the film's main star has been behaving around the film's release--it's sure not behavior that will sell tickets. With all that being said, if this does end up being Phoenix's last performance, then I'm glad to say that it is also his very best.

The story of Two Lovers follows Leonard (Phoenix), a young man who lives with his parents, and is also a constant suicide risk since his former fiance left him. His father Reuben (Moni Moshonov) is a Jewish immigrant who owns a dry cleaning business where Leonard works, and his mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) is a mousy, caring woman who spends a large amount of time keeping tabs on what and how Leonard is doing. His parents attempt to control many aspects of his life, even trying to manipulate his love life.

When Reuben invites a fellow dry cleaning business owner over for dinner one night, he advises him to bring his daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), so she can meet Leonard. They come over, and Sandra and Leonard meet. Sandra is attracted to Leonard despite his social awkwardness, and makes advances toward him. Leonard, nearly empty emotionally sees nothing incredibly wrong with the sweet Sandra, so a relationship doesn't seem like a bad idea, until he meets his new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Michelle is a troubled young woman, who lives a floor above Leonard. She's gorgeous, but has the emotional maturity of a pre-teen. When her and Leonard meet, Leonard is immediately struck, and she is immediately intrigued. Michelle's boyfriend Ronald (Elias Koteas) is a volatile older man, who is rich enough to house Michelle in an apartment, but also has a wife and kids. Leonard wants so badly to love Michelle, and help her, while Sandra wants to do the very same thing with him, and the parallels are glaring.

This is James Gray's fourth film, and his first film since last year's We Own The Night which also starred Phoenix. This is his first non-crime film, and surely there are moments where the romance and the evolution of the story is mishandled. All that being said, there is a lot of melancholy charm throughout the film, and even when the characters seem dispicable, you can't seem to turn your eyes away. Story-wise, Two Lovers is deceivingly simple, never stepping out too far from where we expect the story to go.

But a film like this is never about the end result (and all the better, since the end is rather puzzling--so many questions), but about the journey to it. It's a hackneyed plot in Hollywood: the young man has an opportunity to be with a woman who's secure and sweet, but is instead infatuated with the woman who's diffident and trouble. It's a universal theme, yet Two Lovers manages to make it look fresh, mainly through its dealing with its main character. Leonard is never asking for pity in his mind-numbing decision, so we never judge him.

I've never been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, so I haven't had much interest in his fall from grace, other than from a basic tabloid curiosity. In this film, Phoenix is as honest and transparent as I've ever seen him. He makes this rather pathetic and unsettled human being more than tolerable to deal with over the film's 100 minutes, and actually makes him endearing. As for Paltrow, she continues a career resuscitation that started with last year's Iron Man, and she is slowly but surely shedding her chilly reputation. As for Shaw, she has always been a rather underrated actress in my eyes, and even though she is drastically underused in this film, her spot moments are very warm.

It's always discouraging, given his latest shinanigans, that Phoenix both raps and break dances, but both are short moments, and I'd like to hope that it was just a coincidence, and not an early advertisement. Two Lovers is easily the most mature film James Gray has ever made; I imagine he only made the film for the chance to work with this choice cast. It's story structure has its flimsy moments: not everything is introduced properly, and the film has little care for resolution, but the magic in the movie is the dynamic between the wonderful actors.

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