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.
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.