Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) worries. She watches her son Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) closely at the dinner table, she gets down on her hands and knees to peep under his bedroom door when he has it closed. It’s not that she doesn’t trust him: he’s a good son with a big heart. But she does worry, seeing as he has a history of bipolar disorder and a prescription he’d rather not take. When he comes home one afternoon soaking wet — and without the dry cleaning her was supposed to deliver for his father’s shop — Ruth’s eyes go wide and she gasps, just a little. “What happened?” she asks. “I fell into the bay,” he answers, pushing past her along a foyer wall full of family photos to get to his room.
The wall, glimpsed briefly in this early scene of Two Lovers, lays out Leonard’s dilemma. The portraits, stern-faced and carefully posed, suggest the legacy of determination and sacrifice that he resists. An aspiring photographer himself, Leonard is observant, but not an especially good reader. His own photos are empty of people, showing grey streets and vacant storefronts. As such, they make plain his sense of quiet desperation, the sense that worries Ruth and presumably drives his first action in the film, that his, his deliberate jump into Sheepshead Bay, dry cleaning bag fluttering over his shoulder as he hits the water. When the attempt fails, and he floats to the surface and thrashes about, Leonard is embarrassed, turning back his rescuer with assertions that he didn’t mean to do it, that he’s okay. “I saw him,” says one kid in the small crowd of onlookers. “He jumped.”
Unable to admit this to Ruth, or perhaps even to himself, Leonard shivers in his bedroom, holds his hands over the radiator. Ruth hovers near the closed door, muttering to Leonard’s father Reuben (Moni Moshonov), who says out loud his fears that the boy has “gone off his meds.” Reuben has made a project of his worries, working a deal with the pending buyer of his business so he’ll employ Leonard, ensuring continued health insurance. To the son, however, this effort looks like still more oppressive micromanaging, such that his future looks not so much safe as excruciating.
The film’s translation of Leonard’s view is familiar and reductive: he sees his choices embodied in the titular lovers. On the one hand, he makes small talk with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), eminently marriageable daughter of the man about to purchase the business. Their pairing, encouraged by both families, appears a merger. Sweet, patient, and inexplicably instantly devoted to Leonard (“I want to take care of you,” she promises), Sandra’s favorite movie is The Sound of Music, not, she explains, because of the film itself, but because it reminds her of pleasant evenings spent watching it with her parents. Leonard, of course, the man who shoots vacant park benches, has no such family memories; in fact, he has something like an anti-family -memory, in the form of his former fiancée’s photo, dusty on the shelf near his bed (she left him some two years ago, following the discovery that they both carries to the gene for Tay-Sachs and so wouldn’t be able to have children together).
Yearning to put all this behind him, Leonard resists Sandra, the family choice, and fixes his sights, quite literally, on the junkie shiksa Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). She has recently taken an apartment in the same building, her windows visible from his bedroom. Leonard watches her intently, especially after he meets her, hiding in the hallway from her own domineering father (who never appears on screen, only yells, loudly, from upstairs). When she complains that the neighborhood is the “middle of nowhere,” Leonard sees her as a kindred spirit, and soon becomes convinced that he loves her. This even as she plainly treats him “like a brother,” or gay best friend (“Put your number in my phone so we can text each other!”). When she asks him to meet her married boyfriend Ron (Elias Koteas) in order to advise her on whether he’ll leave his wife, Leonard goes along. He sees in Michelle everything his own future plans don’t offer: she’s vivacious, beautiful, and erratically sexy, an obvious and common boys’ fantasy, ever beyond reach and yet, temptingly and persistently visible.
She’s also fragile, which allows Leonard to imagine himself strong and protective in response. This in itself makes her attractive compared to Sandra. She is not only self-sufficient (following their first night of sex — in his bedroom — she decides when to go and offers, “I’ll see myself out,” as he lies back and wonders at his own mix of dread and contentment), but she’s also associated with the odious dry cleaning job, the horizon that stretches before him endlessly and without change.
Leonard’s depression and lack of action do seem a change from director James Gray’s usual version of masculine life choices, films like We Own the Night or The Yards, where the family business is violence (gangsters or cops). But he’s grappling with the same anxieties, measured slightly differently. That this alternative measuring is, in the end, about his mother — righteously, delicately, and so painfully worried, no matter how much her son assures her that he’s “fine” — makes his limits, as man but more emphatically as a character, too clear and rather sad.