By Elise Nakhnikian
James Gray's latest and perhaps best feature, Two Lovers, is a clear-eyed, unromantic movie about romance. (His first, Little Odessa, won a Silver Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival.)
Gray respects all his characters and lets us in on everyone’s motivation, so nobody comes off as a bad guy. And yet, in this Midsummer Night’s Dream of a story, one person’s happiness is inevitably another person’s pain.
Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hulking bipolar bear of a manchild, old enough to live on his own but living with his parents in a claustropobic but beautifully shot Brighton Beach.
Leonard loves women. He lights up when he flirts, showing flashes of humor and attentiveness that make it plausible – just barely – that the lovely Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) would be drawn to him. But when he’s in shutdown mode, as he usually is, he’s as awkward as Quasimodo, hulking about in the shadows of his own bedroom to spy on his glamorous neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Michelle is a shiksa goddess right out of a Woody Allen movie – in fact, at first she seems to be channeling the Mia Farrow of Crimes and Misdemeanors. A frail blond beauty who seems girlishly undefended, she assumes center stage from the moment she wanders into Leonard’s life, displacing Sandra, the nice Jewish girl his parents want him to marry. Michelle has no romantic interest in Leonard — she’s got a smarmy married lover at the law firm where she works – but she likes keeping him around as an adoring sidekick.
Phoenix, a Gray regular who starred in We Own the Night and played a key role in The Yards, is painfully vulnerable as Leonard. You cringe when Leonard goes to a fancy restaurant and tries to cover up his unease by ordering a girly drink, then trying to suck it up through a swizzle stick. And you brace yourself for something bad to come of the feverish happiness that emerges as he starts spending more time with Michelle— and stops taking his meds.
As Leonard’s parents, the elegant Israeli actor Moni Moshonov and the always sympathetic Isabella Rossellini exude waves of quiet empathy. Everyone in this daisy chain – from Leonard’s parents to Leonard to Sandra to Michelle to her lover – seems to mean well. They all want to take care of each other, but they just keep getting in one another’s way.
Two Lovers mines the gap between what we want for ourselves and what others want from us.