At this point, it’s still impossible to know whether the human performance-art project Phoenix has become is some gigantic goof, or if he really has drunk long and deep from the crazy fountain. But in either case, it’s a shame that this public circus has become the story, when Two Lovers really should have been the story. Because this Phoenix kid? He can actually act a little.
In his third collaboration with writer-director James Gray, Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a guy with more than few issues. We meet him on the brink of what is (at least) his second half-hearted suicide attempt, the result of some indistinct mix of possible bipolar disorder and a bad breakup. While living with his parents in Brooklyn and trying to get his life together, Leonard meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father’s friend and possible business partner. She’s the kind of woman people call “a nice girl”: pretty, sweet and utterly without drama.
But at around the same time, he also meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new neighbor. And Michelle is the anti-Sandra: a vibrant blonde and recovering addict for whom a long-standing affair with a married man (Elias Koteas) is occasionally the least dramatic element in her life. So naturally, Leonard finds himself drawn to Michelle, even as he begins a relationship with Sandra.
Gray has quietly built a career on sturdy New York-set dramas like The Yards and We Own the Night, earning critical respect for that quiet sturdiness even though it’s more impressive as an abstract idea of observational indie cinema. But Two Lovers is actually a throwback to Gray’s first feature, 1995’s Little Odessa, which employed the same Brighton Beach setting for the same kind of gripping character study. In his more recent features, Gray has seemed to begin with a situation, building characters around it. Here, he’s back to building his situations out of his characters.
And here, he’s got a couple of great characters as a foundation. Michelle is exactly the kind of emotional tornado that attracts people who equate damage with depth, and Gray paints her in the kind of broad, sympathetic strokes that allow both her appeal and her self-destructiveness to emerge. Paltrow, it seems, has only gotten grudging respect as an actor when she’s gotten respect at all, but here she nails Michelle’s mess of a self-image without ever turning her into a caricature.
But the show really belongs to Phoenix’s Leonard, and it’s an amazing symmetry of writing and performance. Gray walks a tricky line between making Leonard charming and making him wounded, refusing to oversimplify him as a morose depressive. Phoenix latches on to that complexity, and finds a perfect way to pitch moments on either side. He turns a simple roll of the eyes—as he spots Michelle getting into her lover’s chauffeured car—into a commentary on the absurdity of his pursuit, and finds a wry delivery when asked by Sandra if he knows her employer, pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer (“Yeah, I know it well.”). Every decision we watch Leonard make—from the very first to the very last—becomes a part of a guy who doesn’t seem to know from one moment to the next what will make him happy, or what will allow him to live like an adult.
If anything blunts the effectiveness of Two Lovers, it’s how thin the third side of this triangle feels by comparison. Sandra never entirely makes sense as a character; she claims that plenty of guys would want to go out with her, yet her attraction to Leonard sometimes feels like an act of desperation. The above description of Michelle as the “anti-Sandra” isn’t quite accurate, because ultimately, Sandra seems to exist largely as the anti-Michelle—a representation of the normal domestic life that Leonard can’t quite find it in himself to embrace, rather than a woman with her own interior life.
That still leaves two pretty strong legs to stand on, especially when Phoenix might have supported the film on his own. If he ever gets back around to performing in movies, rather than in the real world, maybe we’ll once again be able to focus on the work.