Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Overlooked Gems #42: Two Lovers

Grade: 87 (A-)

Few recent movie stars have had a stranger career path than Joaquin Phoenix. Before he became the critically acclaimed star of To Die For, Gladiator, and Walk the Line, he suffered the death of his equally talented older brother River Phoenix. Then Phoenix seemed to sink into narcissism and insanity as he pursued a career in hip hop. Then the whole thing was to be revealed to be part of an elaborate practical joke/piece of performance art, the final product of which, 2010’s I’m Still Here, went over like a lead balloon (for the record, I didn’t hate it). Now Phoenix has returned with a performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master that’s pegged him as the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar come next year. But Phoenix’s odd behavior in overshadowed the film he was ostensibly promoting, 2009’s Two Lovers, a remarkable film in its own right.

Leonard (Phoenix) is a talented photographer, but his recent break-up with his fiancĂ©e has led to increasingly withdrawn behavior and suicide attempts. Leonard now lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshinov), but when he meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the family buying out his parents’ dry-cleaning business, the two fall in love. But Leonard also meets and falls for his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman troubled whose drug addictions and relationship with a married man (Elias Koteas). Leonard is torn between the stable and caring Sandra and the passionate Michelle, and his decision could lead to another heartbreak.

Two Lovers is dealing with some heavy material, and it sometimes runs the risk of turning into a joyless, miserable exercise in emotional despair. But director James Gray (Phoenix’s collaborator on The Yards and We Own the Night) brings a trancelike atmosphere to the proceedings and gets to the root of Leonard’s cagey behavior. The film opens with an attempted suicide as Leonard jumps into the bay, but it plays less like a sign of punishment to come and more of a dreamy introduction to a character stuck between the hard facts of life and an insular world he’s created for himself. As the two women involved come into his life, they bring joy and passion, but they also bring complications to an unstable person’s life.

Gray shoots the film with a hushed tone that reflects Phoenix’s quietly intense performance. Credit should go to the rest of the cast for matching him: Shaw realizes the early promise of her small role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as a deeply caring and sweet-natured woman, while Rossellini makes a major impression as Phoenix’s equally compassionate mother. Paltrow, for her part, has never been better, giving a performance that’s equal parts intoxicating and sad. It’s ultimately Phoenix’s show, though, and the actor creates a character that’s perhaps the best showcase for his talents up to this point (aside from The Master, the wide release of which I’m eagerly awaiting). Leonard is a deeply sympathetic character doomed to dissatisfaction no matter what decision he makes, a cracked person overwhelmed by the rest of the world. Phoenix’s breakdown turned out to be hoax, but there’s likely some truth to the spiritual exhaustion on display there. That quality informs the best of his work, of which Two Lovers most certainly belongs. 

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