Joaquin Phoenix has a reputation for diving heartily into roles, and his starring turn in James Gray's Two Lovers is no exception. In the film's first scene, Phoenix's dive is literal: A Brooklyn kid plunging into the bay in an arresting setup that rings of despair and confusion. It's an appropriate introduction to Phoenix's delicate character development, a performance that buoys an impressive romantic drama.
And that's a genre we don't see too often anymore: romantic drama. Today's cinematic romances are usually steeped in light comedy (even decent ones like Definitely, Maybe) or predictable form posing as drama. But Two Lovers is hardcore drama, with desire at its center. Or more accurately, two desires. Article continues below
The troubled Leonard (Phoenix), a quietly charming guy with an unfortunate past, can have one of two women: Sandra Cohen (the beautifully angular Vinessa Shaw), the kind, stable daughter of a local businessman working with Leonard's father, or Michelle (a frazzled Gwyneth Paltrow), the nervous lover of a married man. Sandra is safe. Michelle is manic.
Leonard himself is a multitude of problems, a tragic figure whom Phoenix molds carefully to avoid even the most sincere stereotypes, enough to keep the audience on edge. He has the sensitivity of a guy who's attempted suicide, but he doesn't crumble during conflict. He appears to be painfully shy, but comes across as easily playful, letting it out with his father's employees or Michelle's buddies.
Writer-director Gray, with co-writer Ric Menello, leaves the passionate Phoenix enough room to make Leonard his own little stumbling creation. At the same time, they provide small-detail dialogue that brings flesh and bone to Leonard and his loving Russian-Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini and Israeli actor Moni Moshonov). A mild cloud hovers over their home as Mom and Dad try to handle Leonard with kid gloves, but try not to squelch his progress or make it too obvious.
As with his previous three films (The Yards being a standout), Gray relies on his roots, showing us the people he's known as the New York grandkid of Russian immigrants. Two Lovers may take place in Brooklyn, but Gray keeps the film in a tightly wound microcosm, one that stays within Leonard's life parameters but with some of the city's flavor. Anyone who's ever lived in an old apartment building, or has had brisket for dinner with friends, will know Gray's the real deal.
Two Lovers remains, however, an acting exhibition for Phoenix, a far stronger performer than even the competent Paltrow, whose role demands she keep up with him at times. His "acting" is hidden, his raw mumble packed with emotion, much of it unspoken. As Leonard's final motives become clear, Gray lets the viewer in close enough to connect with the character, to sympathize with how decisions can establish a life's path -- or alter it in the blink of an eye.