Monday, March 30, 2009

Movie Reviews: Two Lovers

Two Lovers *** ½
Directed By:
James Gray.
Written By: James Grey & Ric Menello.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard Kraditor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle Rausch), Vinessa Shaw (Sandra Cohen), Moni Moshonov (Reuben Kraditor), Isabella Rossellini (Ruth Kraditor), John Ortiz (Jose Cordero), Bob Ari (Michael Cohen), Julie Budd (Carol Cohen), Elias Koteas (Ronald Blatt).

Two Lovers is about damaged people. People who have essentially been hurt by life, and yet somehow continue living each day, even when it’s a struggle to get through them. At its core, is one of the oldest stories in the movies – that of a young man torn between two women – the nice one that his family wants him to be with, and the crazier one that he is inexplicably drawn to. But the film is not a cookie cutter exercise in melodrama, but rather it closely examines these characters, particularly poor Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), who is at the center of the triangle.

When we meet Leonard, he is so depressed, he has just jumped off a bridge into the water in a half hearted suicide attempt (the bridge, after all, isn’t that high). He has done this before – in fact he just got out of a facility four months ago after trying to kill himself. He was at one point engaged to marry a friend that he loved, until they got genetic testing done, and found out that they are both carriers of the Tay-sachs gene, meaning that if they had children, they would most likely die within a year of their birth. Her parents called off the wedding, and whisked her away, leaving Leonard hurt, alone and confused. We get the sense that there was always something not quite right about Leonard. He is bi-polar, but seems functional to a certain extent. Now, living at home with his parents and working at his dad’s dry cleaning business, Leonard isn’t all that happy.

But then within 24 hours, he meets two different women. The first is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaner who wants to buy Leonard’s father’s business. This is not a hostile takeover, but rather a decision based on mutual interests. Sandra is drawn to Leonard, and is somehow able to see past his flaws to the person he is inside. There is a connection between them, and we sense that they could in fact be happy together. But then, Leonard is blown over by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). She is pretty, blonde, non-Jewish and seemingly much more fun than Sandra. She goes out clubbing with her friends, and invites Leonard along, only to leave him standing outside by himself. She does drugs, is involved with a married lawyer at the firm she works at. She too is drawn to Leonard, but not in the way he wants her to be. She is one of those people who is so wrapped up in her own problems, she doesn’t really understand the pain she inflicts on others. Poor Leonard doesn’t stand a chance.

As I mentioned at the top of the review, Two Lovers avoids the trappings of a regular romantic melodrama that the movie could have easily devolved into. It also avoids the clichés we have grown so accustomed to in most movies (both comedies and dramas) about Jewish parents. Leonard’s mother (Isabella Rossellini), doesn’t try to guilt Leonard into anything, doesn’t wonder aloud why he cannot find a “nice, Jewish” girl to settle down with. His father (Moni Moshonov), doesn’t try either. They worry about their son, but at the end of the day, just want him to be happy. Sandra’s father (Bob Ari), likes Leonard, likes the fact that he seems to make his daughter happy, but is worried he’ll hurt her. There is no guilt, just a lot of worry and heartache here.

The film doesn’t even devolve to the level of cliché is regards to Michelle’s married lover (Elias Koteas). Yes, he is certainly older than she is, and at times can be controlling, but he truly does care about Michelle. He may be an adulterer, but he isn’t the horrible older man just keeping Michelle around for sex that we often see in the movies. In his two scenes, Koteas is somehow able to make this man a complete person. He confides in Leonard when they first meet, when Michelle goes to the bathroom, that he’s worried about her, and wants him to keep an eye on her for him. Later, when he cannot make it to the hospital and Leonard takes Michelle instead, he arrives at the apartment he pays for her to live in, and is almost kind and caring towards her – and filled with genuine regret that he could not be there for her when she needed him. Michelle talks a lot about his temper, and how he yells and screams, but we don’t see that in him. Given Michelle’s reliability, and her flair for saying things with the express purpose of getting Leonard’s sympathy, we wonder if it happens at all.

At the heart of the movie is a wonderful performance by Joaquin Phoenix. It is a sensitive, nuanced, subtle performance, in which we never catch Phoenix acting. He gets under Leonard’s skin, and makes him into a man who is not comfortable in his own skin. He has a deep rooted pain inside that he tries, unsuccessfully, to hide from the world around him. He is never quite able to express himself in the way in which he wants to. Phoenix is matched by Paltrow, who is equally damaged but much more selfish. She strings Leonard along, using him to fulfill her needs, while never really considering his. It is the best performance either actor has given in a long time.

The last scene in the movie plays like an inevitability. Like his previous film, We Own the Night, James Gray gives us a sense that this is the only place the movie could end and that the main character in the movie never really had a choice – this is where he belongs. Both films end in a note of sadness about this inevitability. This is a wonderful, little film – one the early highlights of this year.

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