June 29, 2009

Two Lovers

Reviewer: Aaron Hillis
Rating (out of 5): ***½

"Love is preposterous and a lie. That doesn't mean it's a lie to you. In other words, you may think you're in love with another person, but really, what you love about that person tends to be what you project upon that person, and what you love in them that you feel you lack yourself."- James Gray

What a curious title, Two Lovers. Like the movie itself and the believably grown-up affairs it depicts, that surface simplicity has multiple meanings, could be a basis for allegory, and mines rich if devastating emotion out of its ambiguities. Just try to forget for a moment that star Joaquin Phoenix is quickly becoming an eccentric performance artist of the Andy Kaufman variety in real life, and cherish what he claims will be his last film: a fantastic, sumptuously lit and shot melodrama of overlapping, shaky love triangles that is mature like nothing else yet on screens this year.

Co-scripted by We Own the Night director James Gray and Ric Menello, and loosely based on Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights," the Brighton Beach-set Two Lovers begins as bipolar Jewish thirty-something Leonard (Phoenix) makes a half-assed attempt to drown in the bay, glimpses of his ex-fiancée flashing through his anxious mind. He's tried this before, so says his overprotective mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) to father Reuben (Moni Moshonov) when their son comes home sopping wet, and locks himself in his room. Leonard's a mess, but it's obvious why even when his family doesn't notice; he's a passionate hobby photographer who is acutely aware and trying to dodge his predestined calling to run the family dry-cleaning biz. While some may find his nervous tics and odd behavior creepy, it's endearing to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the overly earnest beauty he's been fixed up with thanks to their parents going into business together. Leonard entertains the idea of dating her as it's what everyone else wants, but only when his time isn't spent pining for radiant shiksa party-girl Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who happens to live across the courtyard from Leonard in an apartment paid for by her married lover Ronald (Elias Koteas). Sandra wants to take care of Leonard, but she's subconsciously his back-up plan, as is he to Michelle; as anchored to his obliviously lovesick viewpoint, the cosmic irony of this all is lost except to us, which makes his moments of heartbreak ours.

Two Lovers

By rote, great character-driven dramas are compared to Hollywood's '70s heyday, but it's worth exploring why myself and others would do it again here. The lived-in, commonplace inhabitants of Two Lovers might be deal breakers for some: they're not necessarily affable, the relationships don't quite fit even when chemistry exists, and they aren't iconic or bigger than life as we're used to in cinema's constant need for expansion. (In fact, Paltrow seemed miscast to me at first because I had trouble separating the prim, proper princess from this deep-Brooklyn legal assistant who doesn't read, but that's precisely why Ronald and Leonard are endeared to her perceived sophistication.)

These are everyday people with everyday crushes, troubles, and self-destructive flaws, and if they're not especially memorable on their own and the story rather unadorned, it's in Gray's textures and sincerity—and the ensemble's nuanced actions and legible body language—that universal emotional depth is found. On my first viewing, I was shaken by how fate smacked these characters around as if they'd ever be able to outrun it; watching it again last night, I was half-wondering what happened next to these people who live just 20 minutes away from my Brooklyn home.

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Posted by cphillips at June 29, 2009 3:45 PM

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