Film

Two Lovers: All Your Choices Are Bad Ones

What James Gray bravely does in Two Lovers is return the idea of pain, and the threat of bad decisions, to the American film romance.


Two Lovers

Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini, John Ortiz, Bob Art, Julie Budd, Elias Koteas
Length: 108
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2009-02-13 (Limited release)
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Definitions in cinema have gotten pretty limited when you watch a film as over-the-moon romantic as James Gray's Two Lovers and realize that by modern standards, it barely qualifies as a "romance". Somewhere along the way, the very word became co-opted by the purveyors of music-montages and slapstick embarrassments that always ended up at the altar (and adding "comedy" to the description makes the icky girl stuff go down better, it seems). Modern love stories about the young seem mostly about the wedding; it has more to do with scheduling and the frantic rush toward or away from commitment than love.

Strangely, when actors reach what Hollywood would considers their twilight years, only then are your Richard Geres and Diane Keatons allowed to indulge in actual love stories that are more concerned with what the two mean to each other than the schematics of Do You Or Don't You. Unfortunately, it's only in those gentle and semi-geriatric films that one is allowed any hint of real sadness or despair, the critical ingredients for true romance that always seem left on the editing floor whenever Kate Hudson or any of her ilk go strolling down Fifth Avenue on a bright summer's day.

What director and co-writer Gray bravely does in Two Lovers is return the idea of pain, and the threat of bad decisions, to the American film romance. Better yet, he does it by using Gwyneth Paltrow. By all rights, Paltrow should be popping up in those uptown romantic-comedy flavors of the month, not hanging out in a shabby Brighton Beach apartment block with a suicidal Joaquin Phoenix. But to her credit there Paltrow is, popping into the depressive hero's life like a savior from the world of bright lights and possibilities. Her character is the Faustian type, however, and exacts a toll for his love, one that doesn't leave much left over for the neighborhood girl his parents want him to marry.

The slumped and grey pile of ashes whom Phoenix (Gray’s De Niro) inhabits like a ghost is named Leonard Kraditor. We first see him shambling down a pier, heedlessly dropping a batch of dry-cleaning before jumping into the Atlantic and then deciding in a wet and spluttery panic, that actually no, he doesn't want to kill himself. Once he's back at the apartment, you can see why Leonard's depressed, but his actions still seem a bit on the overkill side of things.

Ma and Pa Kraditor (the wonderful matched-set of Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) are exactly the kind of warm and gently supportive couple many people would kill to be parented by. The scene is a little suffocating for a sensitive type like Leonard, though, what with the old apartment’s yellowing air, the family dry-cleaning shop they’d love to leave to him, and the cloistered sense that this seaside Russian Jewish enclave is little more than a jail cell. There’s the Cohen family, friends of the Kraditors, who just so happen to have a comely daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), whom they’d love to set Leonard up with.

It’s far from the worst set-up, and while one can appreciate Leonard’s desire to not have the rest of his life mapped out for him so thoroughly, even given given his foggy backstory of psychological disturbance and present-day thoughts of suicide, his negative response seems unprovoked. But then the more Gray shows us of Leonard -- his disheveled room, random lashings of antagonism, sullen disposition, and a creative habit (photography) that gives him plenty of opportunity to retreat from the world -- the more clear it becomes that he’s barely a man, more like a neurotic man-child stuck in a permanent adolescence.

Which is a state of mind that makes it so much easier to go along with the story when it calls for Leonard to jeopardize the first buds of a romance with Sandra when he spots Trouble in his building’s hallway. Michelle Rausch (Paltrow) is the last thing that somebody like Leonard needs as he’s taking the first timorous steps toward stable adulthood. She’s a kept woman for a dashing but married Manhattan lawyer who likes to keep his mistress squirreled away in Brighton Beach near his mother’s place so he has an excuse to see her. As flighty and self-involved as Sandra is thoughtful and sincere, Michelle may as well have “Stay Away” tattooed on her forehead.

Which is exactly why someone as immature as Leonard would go dashing after her, grabbing whatever shreds of Manhattan glamor Michelle leaves in her wake; not bothering to inform Sandra about any of this. Because he’s a romantic. Because why be in love with one woman when there are two on offer? Because if things fall apart, the cold ocean is still lapping at the shore and ready to take him whenever he decides to return.

Gray brings the same pounding emotionality to Two Lovers that he has to all his previous films, and it turns out that his baroquely romantic sensibility works just as well in a romance as it did in crime dramas like We Own the Night and The Yards. There’s the same thick fog of history layering each scene, the tight webs of family strung everywhere. His casting is smart and unexpected, realizing the a normally glam Rossellini can beautifully play this nosy and warm-hearted mom, and that for once in a love triangle, the steady girlfriend can not only have a more appealing personality than the other woman, but even be more attractive.

It’s a pared-down sort of film from Gray, with fewer of his usual rococo flourishes (save one gothic set-piece on a rooftop with Michelle as a shadowy siren with ocean-wind-tossed hair); more mid-century French arthouse than the 1970's-Sidney Lumet and Coppola feel of his earlier work. He plays it fairly simple, steadily tracking how deeply Leonard is miring himself with Michelle. It all builds to a nervy, white-knuckle sort of climax that comes not a second too soon.

Two Lovers is a film that comes pretty close to not working, particularly the longer one has to endure each horrible decision of Leonard’s. But the easier, more painless ride wouldn’t have been as satisfying, and not nearly as on point. If you don’t have real pain, you don’t have real love.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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