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February 17, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | February 17, 2009 |

This isn’t an easy love story. Lately, we’ve been bombarded with a fetid cluster of romantic comedies where lighthearted entanglements enwrap dreadfully smitten people, and everything gets tied up neatly in a lovely pink bow. James Gray’s Two Lovers is a simple story that takes the complicated path, showing an ugly, awkward, uncomfortable version of what it means not to be lonely. While there’s not much to the story itself, the characters add all the meat. Without the outstanding performances, really there wouldn’t be any reason to watch Two Lovers. Gray (and co-writer Ric Menillo) makes just enough interesting and subtle adjustments to everyone’s behaviors that the movie manages to narrowly avoid smashing up against cliches. But it suffers from a third-act stumble that leaves it limping painfully towards a bleak conclusion.

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is not a happy guy. As the film opens, we see him trying to commit suicide by leaping into the bay. A stranger resuscitates him, and he sputters out the water, stands up, and shuffles away. He mumbles a thank you only after someone in the crowd reminds him. Leonard’s just returned from a mental institution, where he went after his first suicide attempt after his first fiancĂ©e left him. He lives with his mother and father in the Brooklyn home where he grew up, and he works for them at the family dry cleaning business. As he comes into the home, dripping wet from his soak in the bay, he tries to play it off to his concerned mother (Isabella Rosselini) as if nothing happened. Here’s where we begin to see Gray’s subtle genius because he opts for the Harold and Maude moment and plays the scene for humor. Not wacky guffaws, just strangeness. Instead of going for a surly Constanza portrayal, we see Leonard’s parents as concerned and caring Jewish parents and not stereotypes.

The general gist of the movie doesn’t take long to get under way. As Leonard sits at dinner with his family and another family the Cohens, who are looking to purchase the Kraditor’s dry cleaning business, the evening is an opportunity for Leonard to meet Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) — the Cohens’ daughter and his potential mate. Any other movie would have chosen to make Sandra a milquetoast yenta, wearing glasses, thick sweaters, puffing on an inhaler, and braying in a nasally half-Yiddish drone. Sandra’s attractive and appealing, interesting without being quirky or Manhattanite. There are plenty of men after her, but she’s interested in Leonard and his strange black and white photos. Sandra tells Leonard she really wanted to meet him because she saw him dancing with his mother in the laundromat. What I love about that particular moment is while it elevates Leonard from some sort of basement dwelling ghoul into a somewhat appealing guy, you also aren’t sure if Sandra’s lying to be polite or if she really is drawn to Leonard. Phoenix chooses to play Leonard fun. He dances crazy, he cares about his parents, he breaks into silent film schtick. At times, it seems like you are watching a film meant for the two leads to be recent college graduates, but instead, they’re emerging into their thirties. It’s the disparity that gives the story depth.

Of course, matters get complicated when Leonard meets one of his neighbors, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Michelle’s in a profane screaming match with someone upstairs, who she later claims is her father. Michelle is the needless passionate yin to Sandra’s calm, casual, and safe yang. Michelle dances at clubs until the wee hours, tweeking on ecstacy. She’s in a relationship with one of the lawyers at the firm she works for, whose married with children. Leonard faces the choice between the safe quiet nice girl in Sandra or the wild and drama-infused mess that is Michelle. While this is pretty much the basic story to any love triangle match up, it’s from this point Gray gets mileage out of his excellent characters. Elias Koteas plays Ron, the balding lawyer who pays for Michelle’s apartment, takes her to fine restaurants, and to the opera. Aside from my unrelenting and unexplainable devotion to the greatness of Koteas, Ron is a brilliant “other guy.” He actually does love Michelle, and he isn’t just trying to get into her pants. When Ron and Leonard are left alone at a restaurant table, Ron asks him to look after her and make sure she’s not using drugs again.

The love story is done through a series of bizarre exchanges. Leonard courts Sandra almost as an afterthought. When he meets Ron and is confronted with competition, he pushes Michelle aside to devote himself to Sandra. He takes a call at Sandra’s brother’s bar mitzvah from Michelle, who needs him to take her to the hospital where she’s miscarrying Ron’s baby. The stakes are so incredibly high, and in any other story, it’d be played off like a Spanish soap opera, but here it’s just this massive progression with each element of the plot advanced like someone trudging through knee deep snow.

Because Phoenix’s Leonard is such a wonderfully nuanced performance, none of this seems like awkward phrasing. Leonard’s almost schizophrenic, leaping from mania to depression and back. He broods, he spazzes, he skulks, but it always feels natural. The only person in the film who manages to outshine him is Isabella Rosselini, because she’s Isabella Rosselini. I never thought I could adore her more than watching her fight for her Arby’s with Jack Donaghy, but she’s luminous. It’s not in some sort of brash scene stealing, speech heavy role. She peeks under her son’s door to make sure he’s all right. There’s a wonderful moment at the end of the movie where she catches Leonard trying to sneak away — to run away from family and responsibility, and instead of shrieking at him or giving a pearl clutching monologue, she puts a hand to his cheek and tells him she just wants him to be happy.

The only misstep in the casting was Paltrow. She just doesn’t feel like the kind of girl you’d throw your life away for. In the grand scheme of crazy love interests, she doesn’t hold a candle to Winslet’s Clementine or Portman’s Sam. She’s droll and doesn’t have that spark that says, “Here’s a girl who’s going to set off fireworks in your brain — or your car.” It’s sort of like she took her Margot Tenenbaum and tried to make her into a stock dramatic character. If everyone around her wasn’t delivering on all four cylinders, she might have gotten away with it. Instead, you can’t understand why Leonard pines for her.

It’s when choices must be made that Gray loses the beautiful complexity of his characters. The final act comes smothering in, stifling all the creativity and joy of the previous scenes. It ends how it has to, how you figure it will, and it’s really a letdown. Up until that moment, Gray really was slaloming around conventions like an expert downhill skier. Movie, meet pine tree. It’s not an appalling, bile inducing ending. It just turns what was a wonderful love story into bleh. It would have been like Harold and Maude if she lived or if the two musicians had sex at the end of Once. It’s not bad by any stretch; it’s just a letdown.

Two Lovers becomes a pleasant little indie film, but it’s nothing you’ll be remembering come March 6. And it’s already getting swept aside in the wake of Joaquin’s crazy ass rap stunt spectacular. Which is a shame because Vinessa Shaw should be getting more work. She’s cropping up in interesting places and hopefully the right folks see this. I wrote her off since Ladybugs as another pretty face that would fade away, but she’s building a lot of street cred. If you’re looking for a more hearty love story complete with thorns than your typical theatrical fare, give this a gander. But you’re not going to feel bad if you pick the other girl.

Brian Prisco lives in a pina down by the mer-port of Burbank, by way of the cheesesteak-laden arteries of Philadelphia. When not traveling in and out of books to stay narrowly ahead of the pack of Cannonball Readers, he can be found on a Wii Fit staying narrowly ahead of a massive coronary infarction. He catches what floats down in the sewers of the comments section and burps it up for your amusement. Any and all grumblings can be directed to priscogospel at hotmail dot com. He steadfastly awaits the day when Mayor McCheese comes up for re-election so he can finally bust up the porkbellies of McTammany Hall.

Crazy for Thinking My Love Could Hold You

Two Lovers / Brian Prisco

Film | February 17, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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