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Movie Review: Two Lovers

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Few actors working in movies can essay inwardly tortured, brooding characters more convincingly than Joaquin Phoenix, which is why it is unfortunate that he has become the subject of publicity jokes since his announcement to quit acting. Part of it probably has to do with how many people shun the idea that a serious actor like Phoenix would decide to become a hip-hop rap artist considering the majority of rap artists or singers who fail to make the leap to becoming a serious actor. Then there was that comic skit by Ben Stiller at the 81st Academy Awards ceremony that attempted to emulate Phoenix's new bearded look from his appearance on the David Letterman show (and was really horribly lame and unfunny).

All of that, along with the fact that writer/director James Gray publicly criticized Phoenix himself for complaining about tiring of acting on the set, may have contributed to why his latest movie, Two Lovers has only gotten a muted release in the US. Despite that Phoenix may be somewhat at fault for that, that is still a shame because the film is a fine showcase for his acting talents. It is also a more focused effort for writer/director James Gray who often has a tendency to putting way too many plot points in his movie blender. Here creates a narrower, deeper character study of a man with bipolar disorder who incidentally finds himself shaken by the dilemma of falling for two radically different women at the same time. And after numerous years filled with feathery, lame romantic comedies, it is nice to see a romantic drama that actually contains some feelings we can empathize with.

The movie opens quite starkly as we see Phoenix's Leonard Kraditor suddenly jumping off a small bridge in New York City into a river in an attempt to drown himself. He is rescued by passersby and returns to his Jewish home where his parents, Reuben (Moni Moshonov) and Ruth (Isabella Rosselini), quickly figure out that he had made yet another suicide attempt. Believing that perhaps being introduced to a new girl might help him break out of his sad shell, they introduce Leonard to Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) who is the daughter of family friends, Michael (Bob Ari) and Carol (Julie Budd). As Reuben then explains to Leonard, the parents of both families also hope the union of the couple will help complete a merger of their families' laundromat businesses.

Then, one night on his way home, Leonard comes across an apartment neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who seems to be running away from someone in her apartment. Leonard offers to let her hide in his family's apartment for a little while and is instantly drawn to her feisty personality. He obviously knows who his parents would prefer and although Michelle brings out a little seen side of him when she invites him over to the dance club with her friends (which humorously shows some of Phoenix's break dancing moves), we start to see that she could potentially spell more unhealthy emotional trouble for Leonard. But he somehow seems more smitten with Michelle, perhaps because he feels he can show more of his affectionate, protective instincts around her as opposed to the other way around when he is around Sandra, who wants to share more of her own protective warmth around Leonard.

Director Gray, as he did in his past efforts, Little Odessa and We Own the Night, displays an instinctive visual feel for the Jewish neighborhood he depicts and also does not settle for obvious caricatures or clichés in familial relationships. There is no reason to doubt that both Leonard and Sandra come from loving, caring parents who have their best interests in mind. The story also avoids having the women know of each other's existence and that allows the eventual repercussions and rationale for Leonard's feelings and dilemmas to remain entirely interior and personal. That it works so well is largely due to Phoenix's nuanced portrayal of this withdrawn and yet gentle character who may be unwise in letting his romantic longing be swayed by his urge to avoid admitting his problems rather than face them.

Besides Phoenix's anchoring performance, the two actresses playing his potential love interests also deliver fine work playing against their usual types, even though Vinessa Shaw ends up getting the shorter end of the stick. Gwyneth Paltrow delivers some of her strongest work as a woman who is probably more manipulative and sneakily enabling of Leonard's problems than meets the eye but with enough of a dose of naiveté to evade admitting that even to herself. I only wish that Shaw was afforded the same amount of complexity and that Gray and his co-writer Ric Menello wrote her to move beyond the obligatory and default nice girl that the family approves of. Isabella Rosselini, on the other hand, stands out among the parental figures as she has a subtle, crucial scene that reveals either a surprising trust and understanding in her son or a firm belief that her motherly patience with him will eventually be justified in the end. I should also mention the always reliable Elias Koteas who is in just two scenes in the film but establishes a key flesh-and-blood presence that I will leave you to discover.

For director James Gray, Two Lovers marks a departure from his usual crime fare. His previous films, while often skillfully directed in individual scenes, always fell short of completely winning me over due to a constant, overambitious sense of plot crowding. But somehow his shift to observe the matters of a love triangle has freed him from that and allowed him to look more intently than most recent films in the romance genre. Based on this movie, he and Phoenix, who has now collaborated on three of the director's four movies, could have made even more interesting character pieces if the latter had not decided to give up his acting in favor of his hop-hop rap phase. Well, even Sean Penn had said that he wished to quit acting before and hopefully Phoenix will return to his serious acting roots again.

Bottom line: Well worth seeing.

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