Doodad Kind of Town

"Two Lovers"
March 5, 2009, 12:14 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’d be a shame if Joaquin Phoenix’s recent freak-show appearance on the Letterman show kept people away from his latest flm. Because if “Two Lovers” shows us anything, it’s that Phoenix’s acting chops are still very much intact.

In “Two Lovers,” Phoenix plays the heavy-hearted Leonard Kraditor, a thirty-something man who’s moved back into his parents’ Brighton Beach apartment after a broken engagement and subsequent suicide attempt. And, as the film’s title suggests, he is indeed ….torn between two lovers. One, Sandra, is the daughter of his father’s business partner (Vinessa Shaw) and the sort of woman who sheepishly admits that “The Sound of Music” is her favorite movie, not because it’s so good, but because it’s the kind of movie her whole family watches together. The other, his neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a willowy blond goddess who floats in and out of Leonard’s life in inverse proportion to her married lover’s availability.

The “Man Torn Between Good Girl and Bad Girl” story is as old as the hills, and you can see most of the major plot developments coming long before they actually unfold. And yet, while “Two Lovers” doesn’t ultimately take you anywhere surprising, the journey itself is rewarding. In lesser hands,this story would have been played broadly, but director James Gray (who also co-wrote with Ric Menello) and his actors instead give us characters and situations that don’t play to conventional expectations.

Phoenix wears Leonard’s sadness lightly; there isn’t a lot of tortured brooding in his performance, though you can see him struggling – sometimes successfully -to be happy again. The dorky breakdance he performs at a club when he’s trying to impress Michelle and her clubbing pals may be the most priceless thing in the movie. He’s vulnerable, but not in puppy dog way. And he’s a decent guy who respects and loves his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), brushing off their relentless, watchful concern (listening at his door, casting a disapproving eye at Michelle when she pops in unexpectedly) without anger.

Sandra may be the “good”girl but she isn’t cloyingly sweet. As played by Shaw (whose offbeat good looks recall both Hilary Swank and Toni Collette), she has a genuine warmth tempered with a sensible, cautious reserve. And Michelle – volatile and self-absorbed though she may be – isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Paltrow is skillful enough to show us the character’s brokenness and vulnerability. She grabs for Leonard as if he’s a life preserver whenever her life goes out of control, completely unaware of the effect she has on him. But there’s no guile in her actions, and Paltrow never lets you see where Michelle is going next- emotionally or otherwise.

Even Leonard’s parents, for all their hovering and solicitousness, aren’t clingy or controlling. The warmth behind their concern is evident, and they bring a sort of stabilizing coziness to the story.

Leonard’s choice between Sandra and Michelle is finally framed as between being a caretaker or being cared for, between escape from his life or acceptance of it. His decision may not surprise you, but you’ll root for him anyway. And you’ll likely come away hoping that Phoenix reconsiders his own decision to walk away from his acting career. “Two Lovers” offers strong evidence that he’s already in the right profession.

2 Comments so far
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“while “Two Lovers” doesn’t ultimately take you anywhere surprising, the journey itself is rewarding.”That sums it up for me, Pat. I’m finding that the movie isn’t staying with me very intensely, but all in all I really enjoyed it was I was watching it, and I too hope that Phoenix is playing us all for fools.

Comment by Daniel Getahun

Daniel – If memory serves, Phoenix’s recent Letterman appearance isn’t the first time he’s given a truly bizarre interview. Maybe he’s just a very talented eccentric.

Comment by Pat

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