Monday, June 29, 2009

On DVD: "Two Lovers"

James Gray’s Two Lovers was the movie Joaquin Phoenix was ostensibly promoting when he went on his tour of mini-insanity earlier this year, growing a mountain man beard, claiming he was quitting acting to become a hip-hop artist (in spite of his clear lack of talent in that arena), and making an increasingly bizarre series of public appearances, culminating in a mesmerizing train-wreck of an interview on Letterman (“Joaquin, I’m so sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”). Blogs and entertainment insiders quarreled endlessly as to whether the actor had genuinely gone off the deep end or was engaging in some sort of elaborate, Andy Kaufman-style performance art “stunt”; I think the constant presence of his video camera-wielding brother-in-law Casey Affleck (and, frankly, the flame-out on Kaufman’s favorite talk show) point to the latter, and clearly. But it was quite the hot topic for about ten minutes, and then everybody went back to their lives, and poor James Gray’s movie got lost in the shuffle.

And it is a shame that more people saw the YouTube clip of that disastrous Late Show appearance than saw Two Lovers, because the film itself is an accomplished, low-key character study that’s genuinely involving and beautifully acted. A clean-shaven and clear-headed Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, a slightly damaged and semi-suicidal young Brooklyn man (a passing mention is made of bipolar disorder) who has recently moved back home following a serious heartbreak. His parents (slyly played by Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov) do their best to fix him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate; she’s pretty and stable and reliable, so of course he’s got his eyes on someone else.

Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a new neighbor, blonde and willowy and mysterious; Leonard rides the Q train into Manhattan with her, and as he watches her step into a chauffeured Mercedes, he’s clearly smitten. It’s a fairly standard choice (uptown woman or around-the-way girl), but Gray’s intelligent screenplay (written with Ric Menello) has more complexity than that—Michelle has problems of her own, and may very well be more emotionally damaged than Leonard is. She’s in love with a married family man, there’s a specter of past addictions floating around her, and, in general, she seems someone who needs to be taken care of. So does Leonard, which Sandra recognizes, even if Leonard doesn’t.

Two Lovers’ greatest accomplishment may very well be the subtle delicacy with which Gray and Menello handle the themes and implications of the storyline. Leonard is clearly living in a perpetual adolescence (sneaking out of his room, dodging responsibilities, pining for the girl next door); an intelligent, emotionally mature human being would recognize the psychological minefield that a partner like Michelle would present, but Leonard is not emotionally mature. He’s drawn to the shiny object, to her flowing blonde hair and upscale attitudes and job in The City (Gray and cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay effectively convey the visual contrast between slick, glossy Manhattan and cluttered, busy Brooklyn). But while a lesser screenplay would have a secondary character (probably his mother) mouthpiece that in transparent dialogue, Gray lets us observe it and leaves it at that. The religious and social implications are also made clear but left unstated; Leonard and Sandra are clearly Jewish, but he’s drawn to the blonde yuppie shiksa, and Gray wisely leaves that elephant sitting in the room.

Gwyneth Paltrow is an actress I’ve had a harder and harder time with in films, due (unfairly, I’ll admit) to the number of loathsome interviews I’ve seen and read with her. But credit must be given: she is outstanding here. She shows you exactly how Leonard falls for her—she’s charming, funny and charismatic in her early scenes, then shows depth and complexity as she burrows deeper. This free, fresh, and (frankly) sexy turn is the most spontaneous work she’s done in years. Vinessa Shaw (who provided one of the few sharp jolts of genuine eroticism in Eyes Wide Shut) has the less showy role, but she handles it capably; among the able supporting cast, Rossellini’s quietly concerned mother is the stand-out.

Gray’s film is quiet and understated, and he finds just the right style for this personal, character-driven story: intimate and familiar, lived-in and delicate. There are moments that are barely spoken above a whisper, and even when the emotions are (literally) operatic, Gray keeps the tone in a minor key, and that’s the smart play. And for all of his quirks and eccentricities (or publicity-hungry showboating, however you’d like to spin it), Phoenix is just plain superb. His fully-formed performance is an accumulation of small but deeply felt moments (the way he sits in his window, staring up, pining; the way he waits uncomfortably in a high-priced Manhattan restaurant; the simple, plaintive way he pleads “Don’t go”); all ring true, all of them play. The closing scenes are a little pat; there’s a sort of inevitability to them, which is good, but the use of some cheap symbolism is unfortunate. However, the final shots are wonderfully loaded, and Gray stops the action at exactly the correct challenging, thoughtful ending beat.

Two Lovers is director Gray’s most accomplished work to date (it’s certainly more intriguing than its predecessor, the derivative We Own the Night); his handling of potentially melodramatic subject matter is smooth and professional, and he sustains a hushed tone and deliberate pace with aplomb. The slender bonus features are a minor strike against the overall package, but it’s still well worth your time.

"Two Lovers" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 30th.

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