One of the year’s best dramas arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow.
Writer-director James Gray’s Two Lovers opens, as his previous We Own The Night began, with a succinct visual metaphor of what’s to come. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply troubled young man draped in heavy winter clothes, throws himself off a pier into an icy body of water. Pulled to safety by passers-by who witnessed his plunge, he remains dumbstruck, unable to express gratitude for their efforts to save his life. Those themes of hopes rejected and stalled self-destruction form the backbone of the film’s searing character study and help establish it as one of the past year.
Skittish and sorrowful, Leonard stands on shaky ground both in his head and in his life. Diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and numbly devastated by an engagement that ended with ruthless logic by his lover’s family, he’s returned to the Brighton Beach home of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) with nothing more ambitious in mind than working for their dry cleaning business and keeping to himself. The Kraditors are moving ahead, however, on the verge of merging their business with that of the neighboring and prosperous Cohen family. As a way of cementing the union, both sets of parents wouldn’t mind if Leonard struck up a romance with the Cohen’s smart, sensitive daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw).
Leonard and Sandra’s early flirtation is tentative, halting, almost childlike, and you get the sense that such gentle charm uses about all the energy Leonard can manage. That ennui changes once he meets his fiery upstairs neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s come to live in their fortress-like Brooklyn apartment house as a kind of voluntary exile rendered by her boss and lover Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas). Leonard is instantly transfixed by Michelle, who’s a beauty in the most painfully Daisy Buchanan-esque sense: always promising, in an elusive way, something great in return for love and devotion. Leonard pursues her to the best of his ability but finds his attentions first gently ignored and then rebuked. Disappointed, he pulls Sandra further into his orbit, settling into a comfortable relationship with her until the opportunity to win Michelle rears its dangerous head once again.
Gray co-wrote the script (with Ric Minello) based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novella “White Nights,” and that author’s thoroughly downbeat worldview is well-suited to Gray’s visual vocabulary, which interprets Brooklyn and Manhattan alike as vast mazes of dreary buildings occasionally brought to ephemeral life by splashes of light and color. Gray’s films are always romantic in tone if not in attitude, and their characters are kept in almost chiaroscuro proportion to the urban megaliths surrounding them. That Two Lovers is set largely near the steely Atlantic during wintertime only heightens the sense of lifelessness surrounding the human drama. But unlike his earliest films (Little Odessa and The Yards) here Gray is getting more proficient at achieving a balance between the two contrasts. With Two Lovers the setting works in service to the characters, not the other way around.
Those characters, for their part, are played well and without ostentation, though some cast members inhabit their roles more than others. Phoenix gives Leonard a fragility that makes his vacillation between Michelle and Sandra not just believable but tightly suspenseful. The scenes in which Leonard attempts to fit in with Michelle’s group of clubbing friends is almost heart-rending to watch. Likewise Sandra’s futile attempt to convey her tenderness to Leonard, especially with a third-act gift that’s symbolic on probably a half-dozen different levels while simultaneously thumbnailing her character. Shaw is an underrated actress capable of showing great volume of emotion with the simplest of body movements, and here she takes a part that in lesser hands would have been irretrievably bland and makes a fleshed-out character worth liking – even loving, as we come to hope Leonard will.
Paltrow’s career has been dogged by skepticism for years, and in making Michelle both attractive and then repulsive she has in some ways the heaviest load to bear. By and large she succeeds, though in some scenes – as in her moments alone on the wind-swept rooftop with Phoenix – she seems to hold too much back; there’s a sense of a missing depth that might bring both characters into greater clarity. Of course that might be the fault of the script, but as everything else is planned and executed with clockwork precision such an oversight seems unlikely. Michelle is a woman who can’t get past her own selfishness to believe in anyone else’s sincerity. She’s a time bomb, one probably everyone but Leonard can recognize as such. Paltrow never quite lets that danger materialize.
Rossellini, regal even when talking on the phone, gives perhaps the film’s most poignant dialogue late in the film. Without spoiling anything, anybody who’s ever left home will recognize what she says as exactly the words you want to hear upon departure. It also arrives just as the events of the story collapse in on themselves, making what’s still to come seem as bitter as the winter wind howling around Leonard as he returns to the waterfront.
The ending is raw, uncompromising, and multi-faceted. Everyone – almost everyone – gets what they want, which in the finest Russian literary tradition only seems charged with the potential for more misery. Whether you approve or agree with Leonard’s final decision, you can’t argue with its logic or question its unconventional contrast to most Hollywood dramas. You’ll definitely have an opinion about it, though, one way or another. Two Lovers is a movie audacious enough to make you think.
(Note: An earlier version of this review originally ran for the film’s theatrical release.)