Two Lovers is a strange one.
Joaquin Phoenix is a suicidal sad sack named Leonard Kraditor, living in his parents' tchotchke-strewn Brooklyn apartment. It's virtually impossible to watch Phoenix stumble and mumble his way through this beautifully morose romance — and to buy his character for a second.
At least, you can't buy writer-director James Gray's premise that two beautiful women, one played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the other by Vinessa Shaw, would be interested in this mope. But the odd magic of Two Lovers — set in the unhip precincts of Brighton Beach, in a mostly middle-class, mostly Jewish enclave — is that even though you don't buy Leonard, or the affections shown to him by these women, you're compelled to watch, and compelled by the movie's melancholy soul.
A throwback in style, pace and storytelling to the 1970s and the downbeat mood pieces of directors like Bob Rafelson, Two Lovers opens with Phoenix's Leonard trying to do himself in. The suicide attempt isn't smart, and he walks away from it embarrassed and humiliated — returning home, slinking to his room, acting as if nothing's wrong.
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Leonard's parents — a quietly funny Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov — are concerned about their boy. They cast worried looks at his closed bedroom door. They murmur about his bipolar condition. Mom monitors Leonard's meds. And they try to set him up with a business partner's daughter, Sandra (Shaw). She has watched Leonard from afar and seems intrigued.
So Leonard and Sandra meet. He shows her his photographs, black-and-white cityscapes, devoid of people. They talk. They like each other.
But Leonard has also just met Michelle (Paltrow), a neighbor he can see from his window. She's blond and sexy and confides in him like he's a long-lost friend. She invites him to go dancing ("So Leonard, do you go clubbing?"). He's smitten.
But Michelle is a disaster. She's having an affair with her boss (Elias Koteas), a married man. And she shares the dirty details, her shame, with Leonard — who tags along like a puppy, love in his eyes.
Gray has said he based Two Lovers in part on White Nights, a story by Dostoevsky (although this seemed news to Phoenix when David Letterman brought it up during the actor's infamous, Oscar-parodied Late Show appearance). And there is some of the Dostoevsky archetype in Leonard: intense, insecure, lonely, a dreamer.
Like Gray's pictures Little Odessa and The Yards, his new one captures a part of New York that seems lost in time. Two Lovers also makes a nod to Louis Malle's great Atlantic City, in a scene in which Paltrow's character stands at her window, baring her breasts, knowing she's being watched. Paltrow is good: Her character is needy and manipulative, but she seems real. Shaw's Sandra is less complicated, and less believable because of it.
And Phoenix? It's a memorable performance, dark and haunted. That's not to say he doesn't overplay it. In fact, he almost kills the film with his Brando mannerisms and dopey tics. Almost.
But despite its essential implausibility, Two Lovers lingers in your consciousness or loiters there, like Leonard standing on the street corner.