[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot]
James Gray’s “Two Lovers” is a movie of contradictions: genuine yet implausible, modest yet grandiose, familiar yet utterly singular. A moody melodrama that takes place in present-day Brighton Beach — but could very well have played out decades ago — it has an intensity and earnestness that’s all too rare in movies these days. But to reach for emotion and be unembarrassed about it is not, by itself, enough to make a completely successful movie. Burdened by a script that totters between trite and true, “Two Lovers” can leave a viewer torn.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, introduced to us brooding under gray skies and then taking what seems like a suicidal plunge from a pier. The attempt is short-lived as he swims back up to the surface and is fished out by bystanders, a rescue for which he barely musters a thank you. Living with his parents in a musty apartment, Leonard has been convalescing from a broken engagement. Withdrawn and awkward, he nonetheless manages to become friends with two women: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the ostensibly homely daughter of his father’s business partner, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beautiful blonde who lives across the courtyard from his bedroom. Somehow — and within minutes of being in Leonard’s company you’ll understand my incredulity — Leonard ends up dating the former while befriending (and pining for) the latter.
On the surface a romantic drama of a man torn between two women, “Two Lovers” has more on its mind. Leonard is explicitly defined as “ethnic,” his identity underscored throughout the movie by cultural signifiers: a cramped Brooklyn apartment filled with books, parents who speak with Israeli accents, a scene at a bar mitzvah. With its keen sense of place and community, “Two Lovers” elevates its conventional plot into a metaphor for social exclusion and Jewish aspiration. Stuck with the dull, doting neighborhood girl, Leonard can’t help but yearn for his golden shiksa goddess, with Paltrow playing Michelle as a variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (gorgeous, flighty, and, yes, “fucked up”).
In Michelle, Leonard sees escape from his humdrum reality, hammered home by a meeting with Sandra’s father, who all but gives his daughter’s boyfriend the keys to his kingdom: a prominent role in his flourishing dry cleaning business. Compare the drab spaces of Leonard’s everyday with those associated with Michelle — she’s literally above him, a few floors higher in the building, and it’s not for nothing that their first kiss takes place on their building’s rooftop. Even Manhattan, where she works, is given an un-Brooklyn nocturnal glow (which reminds us of another borough-born Jew who has also dabbled in the theme of out-group aspiration).
Leonard’s aching desire to transcend his social reality may be compelling — as is the movie’s theme of reason’s obliteration by passion — but its depiction is another thing. Fascinating subtext trapped in ham-handed text, “Two Lovers” strains credulity over and over. Are we really supposed to buy the beautiful Vinessa Shaw as the plain-Jane whom guys never call back? Or that party-girl Michelle could ever be Leonard’s best friend? The dialogue can sometimes leave you guessing: is this how the inarticulate talk or is it a flaw of the film itself? If the set-up already seems flimsy, the payoff is overdetermined, a movie-movie denouement that aims for operatic but hits closer to soap.
Despite its flaws, “Two Lovers” is hard to shake off, for reasons mentioned above, but also because of the remarkable performance at its center. As Leonard, Phoenix is all mumbles and Method, a wounded oddball who seems borderline autistic. In a way, Phoenix’s loner — by turns captivating and cringe-inducing — seems to exist in a reality removed from the rest of the movie. How this excruciatingly awkward introvert with his lame jokes and come-ons manages to get two girls at once remains a tantalizing mystery — as is Phoenix’s painfully raw turn, his To Die For teen all grown up, skulking around Brooklyn wishing he was somewhere, even someone, else.
[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer, whose work has also appeared in Slate, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the New Republic.]