Based on Joaquin Phoenix's off-kilter salesmanship of this film on David Letterman's show, Two Lovers became a cinematic necessity for me. But, as his incredibly awkward (staged?) Letterman chat would presage, it was appropriately similar to the film he went on to "promote."
Slow, disaffected, elusive, and erratic to the point of frustration, Two Lovers is an interesting cinematic experiment, but not an involving experience. It's a melodramatic navel-gaze, worth merit for a few of its performers, and for moments of its other actors' performances.
Phoenix plays Leonard, a psychologically fragile man-child holding no real steady job and living with his doting parents; he seems barely functioning in some social settings (but can bust an impromptu rap in others –was this the birth of his new career inspiration?), and yet is still a magnet to beautiful ladies.
One is Sandra (a stunning Vinessa Shaw), whose parents are about to purchase Leonard's family dry cleaning biz. She and Leonard are somewhat forced to socialize in a kind of pre-arranged marriage by the two clans, yet Sandra confesses her attraction to him despite their coerced union.
The other lady in Leonard's life is the lovely Michelle (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), whose cinematic entrance of escaping an abusive father (a father we oddly never hear from again) is no small clue as to her psychological baggage. Since Sandra professes her attraction and Michelle appears flirty but aloof, it's obvious with whom Leonard will become smitten. What's also glaringly evident is where the film will head.
Director James Gray takes a break from chronicling criminality as he has with Little Odessa and his two previous Phoenix collaborations The Yards and We Own the Night. His love for sapping his scenes of color has not changed, as New York is as slate and steely as it has ever looked. But this seems apt, as it matches the emotional core of the two leads.
But Gray has never been much for plotting, and that works as a distinct disadvantage here, for we are left following adults in arrested emotional development without really understanding the root of it. Even though we spend almost two hours with these people, we never feel as though we really know any of them. We gets hints of past pain, even glimpses of the scars, but we're never privy to more than that.
Of the secondary characters, it felt like a felonious waste to cast Isabella Rossellini as Leonard's mother, and reduce her to a nosy, nervous Nellie of a mother. There is a wonderfully touching scene she shares with him that hints at the depth she could have provided, given more screen time. Paltrow plays the abuse-junkie well, but she is betrayed by her own glamour. It was hard to buy her as an emotionally crippled basket case, despite her adept performance.
And Phoenix is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the film. There are times when he adequately conveys a man uncomfortable in his own skin, but more often, he comes across as a shoe-gazing adult whose piercing, silent glares border on stalker material. Even though I feel Joaquin's acting exit is an elaborate Andy Kauffman-esqe dupe, it is my hope that Two Lovers is not the swan song to an acting career that could end on a more resonant note.
I have a feeling many who have loved and lost may connect to the characters on screen, for it can capture the blinding power love can possess. But even more will have checked out long before, unable to find a reason in which to invest their time.