In the weeks leading up to its theatrical release, Two Lovers was better known as the last movie to star Joaquin Phoenix—before his retirement from the film business and embarkation upon a strange, probably-fake career as a rap musician—than anticipated as a film one should really go and see. Those who bother to check it will certainly find answers to their questions about whether Phoenix’s ongoing absence from the movies is any great loss (it is), and will also get a surprise glimpse at his skills as an MC (he doesn’t really have any). In addition, they will get to see an intriguing movie that captures a certain place and internal mood quite effectively, but perhaps fails to offer any hope to its characters or viewers.
The plot of Two Lovers is nothing groundbreaking. Leonard (Phoenix) is a depressed young man who lives with his immigrant parents and helps out at their dry-cleaning business. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s business-partner—another family of traditional Jews—is pretty interested in him, and, even better, is comfortable with his notably eccentric nature. Leonard finds her attractive, but is also besotted by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman who lives down the hall in an apartment paid for by her rich, married lover.
Leonard could please his parents and settle down with the desirable Jewish woman who really seems to care for him, or he could pursue the more elusive Michelle and possibly escape from the world he feels stuck in. Not sure how best to proceed, he kind of does both.
There have been plenty of films about the lives of the children of immigrants, including young women having affairs with older men, their experiences with the hostility of city-life, and many of them have been set in New York. But Leonard and his associates are a group that don’t seem to have ever been quite touched upon fully. Leonard is a non-intellectual who is sensitive and values creativity, as well as a lover of magic tricks who likes to do a little break-dancing. The source of his depression is hard to pin down to anything concrete, and he and his family seem to be comfortably well-off materially.
And yet set against the backdrop of the city, he’s nothing like his suburban counterparts who inhabit American Beauty and its many descendants. He’s a mix of different characters we may have seen before, but comes off well as a singular human being, rather than as a mere assembly of identifiable human characteristics. Director James Gray, who is collaborating with Phoenix here for the third time, paints this world in lovely, whispering gray tones, sometimes building small shelters of light for his characters to huddle in when they feel the need.
It’s a place, literal and figurative, that we all know exists, sure, but maybe a place that we take the highway around more than we ever enter. Leonard’s world is unusual, but it seems very real, and this helps make a somewhat conventional story seem a little more novel.
The acting, especially Phoenix’s, is top-notch. Leonard is a strange, awkward character, and Phoenix shows this without ever letting him lose his place as the hero of the story. Leonard makes some decisions throughout the film which many viewers may fervently disagree with, as they seem actions borne of weakness and denial, (don’t buy the ring, Leonard!) but somehow he still seems to have a take on living an interesting life.
The backup cast is great, too. Isabella Rosillini and Moni Moshonov are warm and engaging as Leonard’s parents, and Elias Koteas’ appearance as Michelle’s older lover lends a certain likability to a character who could otherwise have been a two-dimensional villain.
And then there is Paltrow. Paltrow fully inhabits the role of Michelle, creating a living, breathing figure—who pops E one day and skips off to the Opera the next—for Leonard to obsess over. As the film progresses, she slowly and masterfully reveals her character to be a selfish, insecure nightmare. She hints at this in the beginning, with her slightly needy tones and the patronizing way she strokes Leonard’s ego (“It’s so cool that you’re, like, creative”) but becomes full-on pathetic as the film draws on, cursing out her rent-paying lover with a rancor that she clearly cannot maintain, and—for a brief moment—desperately trying to create a world with Phoenix that she knows she can’t abide in.
And this is may be the point upon which Two Lovers begins to slip. Michelle is such a wreck and a tease that it becomes depressing and tiresome to watch the way Phoenix fawns over her. Plenty of admirable men have made the mistake of focusing on the one woman that they can’t quite have (and whom most of their friends would suggest is not that great for him, anyway), but it seems beneath a complex character like Leonard to show such dedication to this kind of one-way crush that he should have gotten over by the time he graduated from high school (he used to be engaged, for Pete’s sake!). With his family and Sandra (who should probably have been far less attractive than she is, as played by Shaw, to make Leonard’s ambivalence believable), Leonard is reserved but shows an inner-confidence, revealing bits of himself only here and there, but without a trace of self-consciousness.
He’s a cool cat, really. But with Michelle, he cannot keep still, trying to impress her with wacky behavior while still attempting to come off as smooth and nonchalant, and then negates it all with blubbery confessions that she doesn’t really want to hear (though she’ll still keep him on speed-dial for when she needs a shoulder to cry on). In fact, he becomes less like the Leonard everyone else seems to respect, and more like Michelle, or at least the Michelle that is dependent upon the whims of someone not quite within her grasp.
Again, Phoenix plays it to perfection, but it just seems wrong. Leonard should not want this as badly as he does, and he should at least consider that he might be betting on a losing horse. Perhaps he could be pretty happy with Sandra, even if he doesn’t necessarily want to stay in dry-cleaning business for the rest of his life (Hey, her appreciation for your much-treasured photography skills seems to be far more genuine than Michelle’s, Leonard!).
Maybe he really does want to escape his current locale, but doesn’t need Michelle to do that. It might be possible that as a grown man with some financial means, there are a lot of options available to Leonard if he’ll just stop for a minute and wipe his eyes to help clear that case of tunnel vision. Maybe something could change, and he could make a choice that is, at least, his own.
But he doesn’t get that chance. He eventually makes a choice, an impulsive decision to do something that will cause a huge change in his current life. But events in the film’s final minutes stop that plan before Leonard even gets a chance to try it out. This is only possible because it wasn’t really his decision; just his attempt to find fulfillment by following the unrelated desires of someone else.
The film’s ending shot implies that Leonard will probably end up happy, or at least comfortable with his life. But it doesn’t feel earned or desired, just accepted, and that’s nothing but a sad consolation prize for such a fascinating character.
The DVD version from Magnolia has the standard extras – deleted scenes, director commentary from Gray – as well as a short documentary about the film which features an illuminating interview with the director.