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Two Lovers

Enjoy your last look at the clean-shaven and sane, albeit brooding, Joaquin Phoenix.
  • Enjoy your last look at the clean-shaven and sane, albeit brooding, Joaquin Phoenix.

*Two Lovers (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak

Remember when Joaquin Phoenix (prior to his appearance with David Letterman) was known for being a talented movie actor, instead of a mutant hybrid of Crispin Glover, Grizzly Adams and the Beastie Boys?

It's a shame that his public circus has become the story, when Two Lovers really should have been the story. Because this Phoenix kid? He can act.

In his third collaboration with writer-director James Gray, Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a guy with some issues. We meet him on the brink of his second half-hearted suicide attempt, the result of an indistinct mix of a mood disorder and a bad breakup. While living with his parents in Brooklyn and trying to get his life together, Leonard meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's friend. She's the kind of woman people call "a nice girl": pretty, sweet and utterly without drama.

Then Leonard also meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his neighbor. Michelle is a vibrant recovering addict, and her affair with a married man (Elias Koteas) is often the least dramatic element in her life. So Leonard finds himself drawn to Michelle as he begins a relationship with Sandra.

Gray has built a career with sturdy New York-set dramas like The Yards and We Own the Night. But Two Lovers is a throwback to Gray's 1995 feature Little Odessa, which employed the same Brighton Beach setting and the same kind of gripping character study. In his more recent features, Gray seemed to begin with a situation, building characters around it. Here, he's back to building his situations out of his characters.

He also has some great characters as a foundation. Michelle is exactly the kind of emotional tornado that attracts people who equate damage with depth, and Gray paints her in a way that shows both her appeal and her self-destructiveness. Paltrow, who has received grudging respect for her acting, nails Michelle's mess without ever turning her into a caricature.

But the show really belongs to Leonard. Gray walks a tricky line between making Leonard charming and wounded, refusing to oversimplify him. Phoenix latches on to that complexity, and finds a perfect way to pitch moments on either side. He turns a roll of the eyes as he spots Michelle getting into her lover's chauffeured car into a commentary on the absurdity of his pursuit. And when Sandra asks if he knows her employer, pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, he offers a wry, "Yeah, I know it well." Every decision Leonard makes becomes part of a guy who doesn't know from one moment to the next what will make him happy, or allow him to live like an adult.

If anything blunts the film's effectiveness, it's how thin the third side of this triangle feels. Sandra's character never entirely makes sense; she claims that plenty of guys want to date her, yet her attraction to Leonard sometimes feels desperate. Ultimately Sandra seems to exist largely as the anti-Michelle a representation of the normal, domestic life that Leonard won't quite embrace, rather than a woman with her own interior life.

That still leaves two good legs to stand on, especially when Phoenix might have supported the film on his own. If he ever gets back around to performing in movies, rather than in the real world, maybe we'll once again be able to focus on the work.

scene@csindy.com

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