“This isn’t some high school crush!” yells our sniveling hero (Joaquin Phoenix) at the woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) spurning his advances. My immediate response to this outburst was one of eye-rolling incredulity, but something about this scene also impressed upon me what makes each of James Gray’s four films irritating as well as unexpectedly heartbreaking. For all its super-sized emotions and Greek-tragic aspirations, his is a body of work rendered with straight-faced, almost dogmatic sincerity, one that envisions itself as a corrective to the hipper-than-thou irony pervading much of recent American cinema. While watching a Gray movie, our powers of empathy are meant to be in full gear, and our cynicism momentarily suspended—a melodramatic imperative that has encountered its fair share of resistance from critics and audiences.
For those who give in to Gray’s first head-on romance, Two Lovers, watching Phoenix fall helplessly and unaccountably for Paltrow might feel like revisiting one’s own adolescent obsessions, without the reassurance that such toxic extremes of feeling can be sealed off in a hormonal teenage past. There are times when Phoenix’s protagonist, Leonard Kraditor, seems like an unintentionally comic caricature of high-school histrionics: chained to a cell phone that vibrates endlessly with calls, his voice quivers whenever his dream girl’s on the other end. What makes this film so uncomfortable is that, for Gray, the hierarchies of romantic attachment—distinctions between mature and naïve, true and false, short-term and forever-after—are irrelevant. Emotions fly out at us unmediated by moral or intellectual assessment. We’re left to wonder: how desirable is this approach to human behavior, this disregard for value judgments? And how should we reconcile the sense of this film as a valentine to the highs of headlong love with its dramatization of Antonioni’s pronouncement that “Eros is sick”?