DVD Showcase: The exceptional James Gray tells a tale of ‘Two Lovers’

30 Jun

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Two Lovers (R) 98 min.  Directed by: James Gray. Starring: Joaquin Pheonix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas Cinematography:  Joaquin Baca-Asay

cinemagrade A-

James Gray’s Two Lovers is potentially the best movie you didn’t see this year. Released last February for a brief stint in theaters and simultaneously on On-Demand, the film was mostly overshadowed by the stunts of its star, Joaquin Pheonix, who showed up on the Letterman Show looking like a stoned Amish rocker. It turns out though, that Gray’s film is far more worthy of the attention and discussion that inevitably was aimed at Phoenix and his ill-advised rap career (it’s all an elaborate film stunt, wait and see).

Gray, currently one of America’s most underrated directors, creates another endearing portrait of the lives and trials of the working-class in Brooklyn and does it this time without corrupt cops or criminal organizations. Instead, Two Lovers retains an elegant simplicty; it’s a romance that sidesteps the trite and formulaic to communicate the depths of longing, the frustrations of unchecked desire, and the comfort of unconditional love. Added in for extra value is Phoenix in the strongest performance of his career, playing a man who knows what he wants, but simply wants too much of it; he has freedom of choice but no wisdom to make the right one. Gray follows his trials and errors over the course of what slowly becomes an uncommonly absorbing movie.

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Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a somewhat troubled young man living with his parents in Brooklyn after his fiance left him for reasons of genetic compatability. The Kraditors are Russian Jews, and typical of Gray’s films, their social circles and traditions offer a beguiling look at N.Y.’s immigrant culture. Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov play Leonard’s parents, and they yearn for him to be happy, so much so that they have arranged for him to meet the warm, endearing Sandra,  the daughter of a family friend.

Leonard, who has just attempted a failed suicide earlier in the day, isn’t gunning for new romance but he manages to not completely alienate Sandra, who it turns out was the real instigator of the meeting. They talk, he shows her his photos, she tells him her favorite movie is The Sound of Music, and eventually he asks her on a date. Its a simple meet cute, but then there is another, with a completely different woman. Enter Gwyneth Paltrow as Michelle, a wild-eyed blonde who lives in Leonard’s building and seeks momentary refuge in his parent’s apartment, which is just enough time for him to become infatuated.  

Two Lovers follows Leonard as he attempts to pursue Michelle, who is more than happy to lead him on and text him at all hours of the night; chatting him up, inviting him out to clubs and dropping bombshells like the fact she does drugs and is currently carrying on an affair with a married man, who pays for the apartment she now lives in. He doesn’t seem to care. On one hand, he also really likes Sandra, who is friendly, shy and decent but all too available. He keeps skirting social functions where she will be, electing instead to go to an obviously doomed dinner with Michelle and her boyfriend, Ronald, played by the appropriately chilly Elias Koteas.

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Eventually, Leonard realizes that a life with Michelle is a futile pursuit, she only wants his company and is still pining hard after Ronald, who has no intention of leaving his wife. He begins a full blown relationship with Sandra, immerses himself into life with her family and shares his with her. He finds a measure of happiness, but both he and the audience know it will only be  a matter of time before his phone rings again, and it’s the girl upstairs calling in another favor.

That’s all I really care to say regarding the story. There is more, but the film isn’t driven by the plot. The  structure suggests something that would be better suited to WilliamShakespeare, or maybe Nora Ephron. Sandra loves Leonard, and while Leonard loves her he is helplessly smitten with Michelle, who potentially could love Leonard if she ever kicked the pills long enough to consider the fact that Ron probably doesnt actually love her, nor she him. You could create some ven diagrams and a flow chart and still not get to the bottom of it all.

All of these ingredients are more than familiar to fans of romantic comedy. However, Two Lovers is not a comedy and it purposefully shakes off any single genre so it can focus on the lives and habits of its characters. What you get is a surprisingly lively and occasionally cheerful movie that isn’t actually about cheerful things and a happy ending isn’t necessarily in the cards for everyone, or anyone for that matter.

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Gray is a true-blue independent filmmaker and his last three films, Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own The Night were all satisfying and original. Two Lovers keeps the same setting, but is a step forward for Gray as an artist.  He embodies the sensebilities of directors working in the 1970s and uses his freedom to tell strong, human stories that don’t feel weighed down by formula or focus groups. Two Lovers is not so riveting because it wraps up everything in the way we want, it’s riveting because it observes human behavior with a realistic and sensitive eye and it creates characters that act as mirrors to our own beliefs, insecurities and experiences. We get to know these people in such a way that when they take action, we see it coming not because the script telegraphs it but because it is so in keeping with their nature. Everyone in the picture, from Ron down to Leonard’s parents are vital elements of the story,and the film gives each of them a stake in the events that are unfolding. Here is a film where the plot doesn’t give the characters meaning, but rather the other way around.

I really hope that we haven’t seen the last of Joaquin Pheonix the actor, because he proves in Two Lovers that he is one of the strongest and most durable performers we have. Leonard is a unique and specific creation. He is suicidal at the opening of the film, but by afternoon he is just tired and irritable; sometimes he seems socially introverted and awkward and other times he can be charming, and purposefully witty.  Written in between the lines of the movie is the fact Leonard is bipolar and is taking pills for it. Joaquin adds this into his performance, but in a subtle way. He outwardly expresses it in his choice of these two women; the steadfast, reliable Sandra reflects all of the wholesome and comforting elements that Leonard’s parent’s embrace while Michelle represents a wildness and unpredicability that arouses Leonard’s desire for escape. He goes through numerous emotional highs and lows, and some days he is nearly catatonic.

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Through it all, Leonard navigates the mine-field of his own heart, trying not to hurt Sandra and patiently waiting for Michelle to get her act together. In some ways, this is the role in a romantic comedy usually reserved for the female star, torn between her choice of two men and only the worthy one will win out. Pheonix turns that on its head by making Leonard a wild-card whose choice is never clearly on the table until he’s in the midst of taking action and as played by Paltrow and Shaw, both women have moments of worthiness.

Paltrow suggests a dozen different facets of character, even though Michelle is never grounded enough to show more than one at any given time and has at best maybe three she rotates between. She makes Michelle sympathetic, but not too much; we understand she is troubled, troubling and in trouble and that she is probably not what Leonard needs right now. Vinessa Shaw is the real discovery. I recall her from the long ago days of my adolescence where she was cute crush material in Ladybugs and Hocus Pocus. Now, she has developed into a performer that carries anxiety and sensitity in the same bag, and mixes them all up so sometimes you don’t know which one you are looking at. Not to escape mention, Isabella Rossellini does a terrific turn as Leonard’s mother; she isn’t in the movie much but when she is, she shines and makes the movie better for her presence.

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Finally, one more shout-out to Gray, who had the courage to make this movie as he did, following the rythyms and impulses of his performers but still crafting a structured and nuanced story that follows a careful trajectory even when it feels entirely unpredictable. He makes Brooklyn an important character in the film. Everything looks wet and gray, either directly after a storm or preparing for one, and scenes where Pheonix and Paltrow shout at each other from opposite sides of apartment buildings make it seem like the whole city is an audience and listening in. Here is a very real and distinct place, and it is filled with people living their lives, not always perfectly, but in most cases as best as can be expected. When the end of Two Lovers comes, it can be seen through several different lenses, and interpreted several different ways.  It doesn’t quite feel like a traditional ending, but at the very same time, it is not only plausible, but likely.

What a great film.

 

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