Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Two Lovers ***1/2
Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov, Bob Ari, Elias Koteas
From its washed out, spare aesthetic, to its anachronistic use of technology, "Two Lovers" feels like a piece of stolen time. Director James Gray (who also wrote the screenplay with Eric Menello) even made sure that the font used for the film's title in the credits, looked like something out of a seventies drama.
For once, this move isn't a selfconscious spectacle (unlike his previous movies tried to jam crime film references down out throats) but a melancholic ode to the fact that the movie's themes are inarguably timeless.
Set in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, the movie starts as Leonard (Phoenix) jumps into the bay attempting suicide.
He doesn't succeed and arrives to his parents' apartment completely wet. His mother Ruth (Rossellini) greets him with an offscreen "hello". After seeing the state she shows up in, she hollers for her husband Reuben (Moshonov) only to say "he's tried to do it again".
Leonard has already entered his room, episodes like this seemingly the most familiar thing, and his parents remain discussing his "bipolar problem" right outside his door.
The manchild moved in with his parents after a failed engagement and works in their dry cleaning business. He sleeps until noon, only because Ruth enters his room and wakes him up, while he flirts with the idea of becoming a photographer.
To his parents, his mother especially, Leonard is still a child and this comes to show in his relationships. Looking back at his torn engagement he has a flashback where his fiancée simply tells him "I have to go".
It is this kind of reasoning that opens the door to the film's central problem. He spots his neighbor Michelle (Paltrow) in the hall one day and invites her to his apartment while she hides from her crazy father; and just like a child would, he shows her his living room, introduces her to his parents and doesn't ask her to stay for dinner.
He's smitten. The next time he sees her he follows her to the subway, waits for her to see him first and then rides with her making awkward small talk.
While he feeds his crush his parents introduce him to Sandra (Shaw), daughter of his father's new business associate.
While it's obvious that she's into him, completely aware of the "set up", he continues dangling with thoughts of Michelle.
In her he sees the promise of glamor, excitement and Manhattan, with Sandra there's just the perpetuation of a lifestyle he obviously doesn't feel good in.
This doesn't stop him from pursuing both of them and by the end he will have to make a choice. At the hands of Gray this choice however doesn't come down to a basic choosing between two women, but choosing his own lifestyle.
The women in question, albeit being very human, realistic characters, are archetypes of the paths Leonard's life can take. Which is why "Two Lovers" might look and talk like a traditional romantic drama, but is far from being it.
Phoenix is smooth and wonderful making Leonard someone who deals with his demons as practically as he can. All of his choices seem to be easy to take and his disregard for responsibility is always covered by the "he was dumped" card.
The actor evokes James Dean's Jim Stark and in some scenes is as haunted as Brando was in "Last Tango in Paris", but the truth is that it's not easy to place his kind of performance and compare it directly to someone specific.
He might recall Method actors and seventies' geniuses, but what he does is all his'. Shaw and Paltrow provide wonderful supporting turns.
Shaw's Sandra is a delight to watch; she lives ruled by family laws and courting standards, but while she doesn't seem to ask for more than she can get, we know that she has compromised with herself.
Paltrow's femme fatale on the other side is an explosion of hysterics and unnecessary drama, that the actress makes her so refreshing and seductive is a miracle and proof that if we were in Leonard's position we wouldn't be able to resist her charms either.
And Rossellini (who inherited her mother's heartbreaking smile) is the film's most powerful female figure. Her overbearing need to see her son happy makes her a deity of sorts (notice how we know she's there in several scenes but we don't see her, she's omnipresent) and the fact that Rossellini plays her without recurring to Jewish mother clichés is surprising.
When Leonard first kisses Sandra in his apartment, he turns and looks at the pictures in his wall, he pulls away from Sandra and says he can't continue with mom "standing" there.
That moment sums up the bittersweet dilemma in "Two Lovers" and Leonard's incapacity to become a man of his own without blaming a woman for what he turns into.
Early on Gray makes us see who's good for Leonard, but we never really know if he's good for anyone, or if he ever will be.