Two Lovers (2009) dir. James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwenyth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Elias Koteas
After going 6 years between his first and second film and 7 years between his second and third director Gray quickly made “Two Lovers” on the heals of “We Own the Night”. With much less genre-pretention, Gray’s low key character study accomplishes more than either of “Night”, or the “The Yards” (though I confess not haven’t seen “Little Odessa”).
Beginning a film with a suicide attempt is always a difficult set-up. This is what happens to Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a depressed late 30-something, who appears to be at his lowest place. We learn that Leonard’s has been suffering from depression since his ex-fiance left him for the innocuous reason of incompatible blood types (setting a new cinematic bar for break-ups). He’s since spent the last three years living with his parents regressing in maturity with increasingly inward anti-social behaviour.
But within a matter of days Leonard has two attractive women cross his paths – Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is a family friend whom Leonard gets set-up with, a lovely gal who aggressively takes the lead with the flirtation. But it’s Michelle (Gwenyth Paltrow) Leonard's neighbour whom he's truly smitten with. A more volatile emotional personality than Sandra, but a carnal lust prevents him from truly committing to Sandra. His platonic friendship with Michelle soon turns into a romance, which will either bring Leonard out of his shell or perhaps send him further into despair.
Gray drops us into Leonard’s life at his absolute lowest point. As an audience member understanding and sympathizing with your main character who has just tried to commit suicide is a tall venture. As a result the first half of the film is an uphill emotional battle to understand Leonard.
It’s not subtle that the two lovers in question represent the different paths in Leonard’s life. As we watch Sandra’s advances go dismissed and his immature lies and deceipt against her compile, we have expectations of where the story will end up.
As a character study, Leonard is a curious case. A late 30-something who lives with his parents? Who lies and deceives everyone around him like a neurotic immature teenager? How do we identify with someone like this? Thinking back to the selfish awkwardness of adolescence might help put you in Leonard's headspace.
There's a lot of Travis Bickle in Leonard and so reconciling his anti-social behaviour with Sandra and Michelle's attraction to him is a hurdle to overcome. And perhaps Phoenix chews it all a bit too much with his Brando mumbling and twitchy mannerisms, but Gray’s emotional honesty and simple love triangle does eventually trump this. Leonard and Phoenix slowly got under my skin and by the third act, I found myself committed to seeing Leonard complete his journey.
In addition to his characters Gray’s love for his hometown New York City is admirably worn on his sleeve. Gray’s carefully chosen locals and unintrusive long lens shooting style compresses the endless nightlights and corridors of grey buildings in the background. At all times we know it’s New York, and not Toronto, or any other city doubled for it.
The timing of Phoenix’s David Letterman meltdown is said to have irked Gray, perhaps implying it hurt the box office of the film. But success for a film like “Two Lovers” should not be judged on box office. On DVD the film should find its audience, American indie cinema romantics who chart the careers of filmmakers like James Gray. I think audiences will find it to be his freshest and most personal film he’s made. Enjoy.
"Two Lovers" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray in Canada from Alliance Films