All of the movies written and directed by James Gray look, feel, and sound alike. And while Two Lovers, which might be his richest and best yet (fine, The Immigrant is something special…), doesn’t revolve around the sordid world of crime, Russian-NY gangsters, and bloody shoot-outs (Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night are his other efforts), it’s no less of an accomplishment. Gray is a 70’s filmmaker at heart. His color palette consists of burnished browns, jet blacks, and gun-metal grey. His characters are ambiguous, morally conflicted, and quiet. Themes of family, loyalty, and violence run through all of his narratives, which jump from melodrama to genuine feeling with a peculiar grace. And this is what makes Two Lovers so excellent — it has a timeless quality, its characters seem real without ever falling into cliché, and Gray’s refusal to play anything safe imbues the film with a level of unpredictability that makes for great entertainment. And while Two Lovers may finally be too dour, possibly too portentous for some, the crafty decisions made by Gray and his co-scenarist Ric Menello should not go unnoticed, though they probably will, considering the ridiculously limited theatrical release that the film received. I hope that this movie has found an audience on DVD/Blu-ray/cable, because it deserves to win its share of fans.
The film is essentially a love story, but one shot through with heartache and dysfunction. Leonard Kraditor (the phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix) is depressed, miserable, and more than likely bi-polar. Still reeling from being dumped by his fiancée, he’s moved back in with his loving parents (played wonderfully by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). They’re a family of Jews from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, and Gray gets all of the familial minutiae just right. Leonard’s parents want nothing but the best for their boy and are deeply concerned about his well-being. Fearing that he might be regressing back to his addict-days, they arrange a date for Leonard with the charming Sandra Cohen (the extremely natural and appealing Vinessa Shaw, who deserves a helluva lot more work than she’s been afforded), who happens to be the daughter of a business associate of Leonard’s father. If sparks were to fly between the two of them, it might make the merging of Leonard’s parent’s dry-cleaning business with Sandra’s parent’s business run even smoother. But a monkey wrench is thrown into potential domestic and professional bliss when Leonard meets the sexy and emotionally wounded Michelle, played with damaged-goods allure by Gwyneth Paltrow, in one of her absolute best performances. It’s the classic situation: Seemingly good-hearted Jewish man needs to choose between the sensible Jewish woman who is loved by his parents, and the blond shiksa goddess who Leonard craves in a seriously carnal way. Relationships are struck up with both of the women by Leonard, and as he twists and turns his way between the two of them, the audience twists and turns in their seat because of the realistically awkward situations that the characters find themselves in. Who will Leonard end up with? How will his parents react? And will Leonard ever be able to shake off the demons from his past?
Two Lovers is the sort of adult-minded movie that people complain never gets made any more. Well, movies like this do exist — the problem is that distributors don’t have any faith in them. This is a shame because there are a lot of people out there who crave this sort of character and detail oriented work. The performances from Phoenix, Shaw, and Paltrow register as career highs for all of them, with Phoenix continuously providing varied and distinctive work all throughout his career. Leonard isn’t necessarily a likable guy, and many of the decisions that her makes seem foolish, but when you look at the story from a slight remove, you realize that the choices made are probably the ones that would be decided upon in the real world. Phoenix has a way with introverted, damaged souls, and it’s clear that repeatedly working with Gray has expanded his abilities as a dramatic artist. You like Leonard even though you probably shouldn’t. At least I did. Paltrow, who has an innate ability to convey sexiness and sympathy in the proper role, shines in a way that she rarely has on the big screen in Two Lovers — she’s totally hot, she’s total trouble, and she totally knows it. And the wildly undervalued Shaw exudes an effortless charm and a natural quality that so few major actresses’ possess. I had hoped that her terrific but subtle work in this film would have led to bigger parts down the road, or maybe a starring role on an HBO or Showtime or FX series, but alas, it’s not happened for whatever reason. And as always with Gray, the film has a stylish but unfussy visual style. Long takes are employed, static cameras are set in place, and the actors were given all the room they needed to carefully etch their layered characters. Films like Two Lovers are rare in that, typically, with a romantic drama, the audience has easy sentiment spoon-fed to them. Not here. Gray makes you work for a potential happy ending, and even when that ending comes, you can bet that there will be shades of uncertainty attached to it. Two Lovers may be small in scale, but it’s huge in heart and feeling.