(No longer in theaters)
Feb 13, 2009
James Gray’s movies (The Yards, We Own the Night) have their share of shopworn melodramatic devices, but they’re too emotionally rich to dismiss. Their authenticity—and their passion—is in their texture. In Two Lovers, his first feature without guns, Gray’s usual leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, pudges himself up to play Leonard, a suicidal depressive who has moved back in with his anxious Jewish family in Brighton Beach, where he works as a delivery boy for his dad’s dry-cleaning store. He’s fixed up with a nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw) who’s lovely and wants to take care of him; and that would (and should) be that except one day a woman backs into his line of sight (and the frame) and, damn, it’s a shiksa goddess. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow! Leonard’s attraction is seismic. This is The Heartbreak Kid (the original) with none of the laughs but its heart right there on its sleeve.
Although Paltrow is radiant (and she nails the character’s ditzy sense of entitlement), it’s Phoenix’s movie. He is, once again, stupendous, and stupendous in a way he has never been before: His face is a graceless blob, his eyes searching for something, someone to define him. (Can Phoenix really be abandoning acting for rap? Oy.) Two Lovers is much ado about nothing, but so are most hopeless crushes in which everything in the universe seems suddenly at stake.
Don't Ignore the Hype
Joaquin Phoenix’s aggressively taciturn “non-appearance” with David Letterman was clearly a stunt, and I have no problem with that: Would a boilerplate promo interview have been better TV? The problem is that you might be disinclined to see Phoenix’s stupendous performance in James Gray’s Two Lovers, a moody drama about a poetically paralyzed Jewish man-child living with his Brighton Beach parents—and the shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow) who gives him a (demented) reason to live. And check out Gray’s other films with Phoenix, The Yards and We Own the Night.