Like many intimate slice-of-life dramas, Two Lovers runs the risk of becoming bleak and tedious. But thanks to old-fashioned narrative drive -- one really wants to know what happens next -- the total believability of the characters as written and performed, and the evocative Brighton Beach scene, it is an unexpectedly poignant film.
Still living with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov), 30-something Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled young man who finds himself torn between the likable Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's new business partner, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), an attractive and rootless neighbor who is having an affair with a married man. Michelle has also had an ongoing problem with drugs. Leonard enjoys Sandra's company and perhaps even loves her. But he is deeply drawn to Michelle.
Phoenix brings Leonard to life, playing him as an anxiety-ridden man-child caught in an emotional vise. He is at once flailing about and paralyzed. His dead eyes and rigid walk are vivid. Shaw is also strong as the "suitable" girlfriend who, in less-capable hands, could quickly become charmless. But Sandra is as appealing as -- arguably more so than -- Michelle. Yet the latter is a three-dimensional human being too. Paltrow's Michelle is not simply the exotic "other."
Kudos must also go to the supporting actors. Bob Ari is excellent as Sandra's loving father, Michael, a savvy businessman who understands that Leonard may be bad news for his daughter and his business. Still, he wishes it were otherwise. In one of the most memorable scenes, Michael lays it all out for Leonard, explaining why his marrying Sandra would be potentially good for everyone, if only Leonard were up to snuff. He then bluntly asks Leonard, "Are you a fuckup?" What's striking is that Michael is not villainous at all, and one can see the situation from his vantage. Moshonov as Leonard's father gives the film's most complex performance. A well-known Israeli actor, he fully inhabits the elder Kraditor, a man who has serious financial problems and knows he'll be in major trouble if he loses his new business partner but is concerned for his son's welfare above everything else.
Two Lovers marks James Gray's fourth film and third collaboration with Phoenix. But this is a departure from Gray's previous works (Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night). He has moved from crime thrillers to a romantic drama, though his keen sense of character, class, and place remain. The rundown world of Brighton Beach, with the ocean on one side and the El train on the other, is the perfect backdrop for the story that unfolds.
Genre: Drama. Directed by: James Gray. Written by: James Gray and Richard Menello. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov.