"Two Lovers," Joaquin Phoenix's purported last film, brings out the best in the actor.
Before he became a talk-show punch line in a tumbleweed beard, Joaquin Phoenix was a fine character actor. The evidence is on display in "Two Lovers," a quietly moving romantic drama as evocative as a Philip Roth short story.
Phoenix is solid as Leonard, only child of a doting immigrant couple, still living in their Brooklyn apartment and delivering orders for the family dry cleaning business. Deep in an emotional funk after losing his fiancée, Leonard unexpectedly finds himself with two attractive women tapping at his cocoon. Warm, brunette Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a prospective business partner, offers a stable, if mundane, future. Blond, troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) promises adventure. Leonard, uncertain and a touch unstable, bounces between the two.
There's more at stake here than in many love stories. We meet Leonard during an abortive suicide attempt, and whenever he's near a whizzing subway train or near the ocean at Brighton Beach, worry for his safety is near the surface. Phoenix doesn't pander for sympathy. He makes Leonard a superficially charming character with a cold core and a tight, tiny smile.
He also shows us this immature outsider's anxiety over making the wrong choice. With Michelle, he loosens up and dances, and glows when she encourages him to pursue his passion for photography. (Director James Gray wisely allows us to see Leonard's snaps, and they're mediocre.) Sandra doesn't have her rival's neuroses nor her drug habit, and she could step directly into the role of Leonard's hovering mother (Isabella Rossellini). Each woman has her own allure and Leonard knows he won't have many more options. But he's too aimless to be truly searching. He's waiting for his destiny to be elivered.
Phoenix bravely shows us Leonard's slight capacity for remorse, and Gray keeps the tone chilly. Leonard is manipulative, yet Sandra and Michelle use him as a means to their own ends, as well. Nobody is a villain, exactly, and neither do they get off easy. Paltrow makes her character deeper than the standard crazy-trainwreck shiksa. She offers Leonard honest friendship and when Leonard demonstrates that sex is his sole means of contact with women, you can feel her relief: She understands the terms of barter. Shaw's Sandra is crushing on Leonard because she wants a good-looking provider. She doesn't notice, or doesn't care, that this 30-ish guy acts like a misunderstood teenager in a 1950s generation gap movie.
There are no big dramatic conflicts, and story points are undeveloped or left dangling, but in its ragged, nonlinear way, "Two Lovers" has more going on than most movies. These are people reaching out to each other to break their solitude, but finding only solitude once again. The film is all about creating a mood, and it hangs over you for days.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186