Two Lovers

Two Lovers (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. James Gray
viewed: 09/04/09

Two Lovers is a hard sell in Hollywood marketing terms.  A story about a bi-polar young man, and his love for a problematic blonde, while the “nice girl” brunette, waits in the wayside.  And let’s face it, Joaquin Phoenix, while a good enough actor, isn’t compelling enough to see just anything.  And Gwyneth Paltrow, who is so annoying in public persona.  And it’s kind of a realistic/naturalistic semi-downer.

I recall seeing the trailer and thinking, “Nope.”

But I had a friend recommend the film, so I queued it up.

Writer/director James Gray may have been establishing a reputation of sorts, but then I relalized that I’d never seen any of his films: I remember Little Odessa (1994) got some good reviews, but followed by The Yards (2000) (vaguely recall it), and then the previous year’s We Own the Night (2007), also starring Phoenix.  I guess you could say he makes earnest, hard to market movies.

Actually, Two Lovers does feel real.  Gwyneth Paltrow is pretty and flitty, the kind of girl that a guy falls for, who never falls back for you, whose own personal messes make you want to care for her.  And this is what happens to Phoenix’s character, Leonard, who is recovering from depression and bi-polar disorder, suicide attempts, still lingering over a ruined romance.  He’s primed for self-destruction.  And there’s not much likelihood that she’ll be good for him.

In the meantime, his father’s dry cleaning business in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, is looking to be subsumed by another Jewish dry cleaner, brokering a partnership that includes a romantic connection to his pretty, though less-flashy daughter.  So, he’s caught between “two lovers”, this mumbling, mixed-up romantic.  Not promising.

It could be a little more straight-forward, but because Leonard’s family is heavily signified in their Jewishness, with many photos of ancestors on the wall, whereas Paltrow’s blonde semi-bimbo doesn’t even know what a dreidl is.  What rock has she lived under?  She’s a sort of model of gentile sexuality.  It’s something I don’t know that I totally understand but am familiar enough with from Woody Allen films.

Gray is strong in his settings and characterizations, giving a feel of a real part of New York, and regular people, going through much less egrandized versions of swooping, dooming love.  And compromising, accepting, and love.

Actually, Leonard’s parents are very good, the eternally beautiful Isabella Rossellini and the traditional father played by Moni Moshonov.  The film is strong, and telling, but not necessarily transcendently so.  Admirable, well-filmed, and strong in its characterization, but maybe just quiet enough to lack the transformative nature of such a story fully realized.  I don’t think that it’s worth criticizing because it’s a very decent film.

So, if you’re ever looking for a low-key film about Joaquin Phoenix playing a bi-polar dry cleaner in love with the flighty Gwyneth Paltrow…  here you go.

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