Thirtysomething Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix, "Gladiator," "We Own the Night") is on the shaky mend from an engagement break off under the watchful eyes of his parents Reuben (Moni Moshonov, "Late Marriage," "We Own the Night") and Ruth (Isabella Rossellini, "The Saddest Music in the World," "Green Porno"). They hope to pair him off with Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw, "Eyes Wide Shut," "3:10 to Yuma"), the beautiful daughter of the man who wants to merge their Brighton Beach dry cleaning business into his own, but Leonard becomes obsessed with new neurotic neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, "Iron Man"). The disturbed and fragile Leonard is caught between "Two Lovers."
Cowriter (with Ric Menello)/director James Gray ("The Yards," "We Own the Night"), working for the third time with Joaquin Phoenix, has given the actor perhaps his most complex role, in a story that resembles a blue collar "Momma's Man" if Azaziel Jacobs's character had been a tortured romantic. The Brighton Beach setting is rich, the use of a diverse blend of music unparalleled and Phoenix's costars Paltrow and Shaw deliver beautifully fleshed out polar opposites.
The film's stylized beginning reflects Leonard's suicidal state of mind as he walks down a pier dragging a bag of dry cleaning. Sound design makes his experience feel like he's underwater - a few seconds later and Leonard climbs over a railing and lets himself fall in. When he arrives home to his parents apartment soaking wet, he tells his mother that he 'fell into the bay.' 'I think he tried again' she whispers to his father.
Leonard pulls himself together for his parents' dinner guests, the Cohen family. Michael Cohen (Bob Ari) may be buying out Reuben's business, but it is clear there is another agenda at play and both sets of parents seem pleased when Leonard takes Sandra Cohen to his room to show her his photography. She admits the subterfuge, but also confesses that she actually instigated it, interested in the man who would ask his mother to dance behind a dry cleaning counter. Sandra's question regarding a framed photo in Leonard's room gives us his back story of a romance in ruins when genetic tests proved children would be out of the question, strange circumstances that weigh on our perspective of Leonard.
Just as Leonard seems on a parentally approved road, he's sideswiped by Michelle, a Shiksa dream in blonde and black stranded in the hallway by paternal outbursts emanating from her apartment above. Leonard offers refuge and Michelle accepts, fascinated by the Jewish culture on display in the Kraditor apartment. Leonard maintains just enough interest in Sandra to keep her hopes up, but he's hooked on obvious trouble. Any undercurrents that Michelle is bad news are confirmed when she invites her 'new best friend' to go out dancing and a call on her cell phone sends her into a tailspin - her married lover Ronald (Elias Koteas, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") apparently can't make it. Leonard keeps his hand in Michelle's game as supportive friend waiting to make his move while Sandra parallels, knowing something is not right but patiently waiting nonetheless.
Gray spins out an age old tale - that of the appeal of forbidden fruit, damaged goods. Leonard is a man-child over protected in his parents' world who is drawn to the danger and sophisticated otherness Michelle represents, even as he appreciates what Sandra's all about (stability, family culture and heritage). The hermetic cocoon of the Kraditor apartment is symbolically broken by the view from Leonard's window, one which crosses a courtyard towards Michelle, and the building's rooftop where they often meet, whereas Sandra is only seen within the apartment or at a local restaurant, its outdoor dining area swathed in plastic tenting against the winter cold, or at her brother's bar mitzvah, represented in a black and white family photo montage of the snaps Leonard has taken (and in which he is presented as Sandra's boyfriend by a potential father-in-law).
Phoenix is compelling as Leonard. Speaking in a lispy mumble, he lets one in just enough to raise curiosity. With his dark good looks, dark past and potential for photographic poetry, there is no cause to doubt the charisma that would draw two beautiful women to his side. He is a brooding enigma to Sandra, a sympathetic ear and white knight to Michelle and he charms the audience with his awkwardness when neither of them is looking. Paltrow is perfect as the drug-using whirlwind who whips Leonard into her needy wake and Shaw misguides from her exotic looks with an ordinariness of manner. Rossellini is all maternal concern without being smothering and in just the way she accepts a glass of champagne on New Year's Eve, she lets us see the temptress of her youth.
There are a couple of minor nits to be picked with Gray's script. Sandra is perhaps a bit too perfect, a little too unwilling to question, a little too generous with space towards Leonard. Michelle is pointedly given a dog, Rex, whom we can hear barking and who Leonard meets, yet Rex is conveniently forgotten when Michelle spends time in a hospital or plans to move across the country. On an immediate level, the film's ending seems too pat, as if Leonard hasn't so much made a choice as been give one, yet this is not a flaw as upon reflection - and this is a film that stays with you - there is more ambiguity here thn meets the eye. Gray sets his characters and locations to music than ranges from jazz to Pavorotti opera to Portugese fado with the wonderfully ironic "Lujon," a Henry Mancini piece composed for the 50's television series 'Mr. Lucky,' defining Manhattan luxe.
Leonard (Joachim Phoenix) has had a troubled past. His fiancée left him two years before because of a genetic problem that would rear if they had kids and the pressure pushed him to attempted suicide. Now living with his parents, Leonard is trying to get his life back and chances appear pretty darn good when he meets “Two Lovers.”
Director James Gray (and co-scribe with Ric Menello) is best known for his gritty human dramas that revolve around crime: murder, corruption, vigilante justice and family. “Little Odessa,” “Yards” and “We Own the Night” all have these themes in common. With “Two Lovers,” he keeps the family aspect and eschews the rest in favor of a light, routine romance that benefits from Joachim Phoenix’s portrayal as Leonard, a complex, quiet individual who loves photography and is trying to rebuild his life. Phoenix is aided smartly by his two pretty costars, Gwyneth Paltrow, as beautiful blond Michelle, and Vinessa Shaw, as pretty, sweet Sandra.
Jewish Leonard lives at home with his folks following his string of misfortunes. He is still on shaky ground, much to the worry of his mother, Ruth (Isabella Rossellini), and father, Reuben (Moni Moshonov). Leonard proves that they are right to worry when he comes home one night sopping wet with a lame story that he “fell in the bay.” Then two things happen that will change everything. He meets Sandra, the daughter of his dad’s future business partner, and they immediately are attracted to each other. Then, he bumps into his beautiful, erratic neighbor, Michelle, and is smitten by her, too.
The been-done-before story tells about how a hapless Jewish man meets two women, one a beautiful, blond, capricious goy, the other a pretty, kind, dependable Jewish girl, and his life is turned around for the better. “Two Lovers” follows this tried and true cliché and you know exactly how it is going to turn out within minutes of the first reel running. Fortunately, an attractive cast, solid acting and deft direction help the film rise above the routine story, making it enjoyable and familiar. I call it “comfortable.” I give it a B.
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