Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: 'Two Lovers' (B+)

By Chase Kahn

Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) arrives home to his two parents preparing dinner, and he's being told that the Cohen's are coming over with their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Upon their arrival, Leonard appears more comfortable joking and performing magic for the Cohen's young 13 year-old son than with their beautiful daughter more his age. It's this kind of density and craftsmanship that persistently appears throughout James Gray's Two Lovers.

It's a classy, high-minded drama/character study about lost souls in working-class Brooklyn and it moves without a false step. Joaquin Phoenix, obviously making headlines elsewhere these days, shows even more evidence of an apparent hoax-in-progress, as he is simply too good here to be calling it quits. Playing a crazy, nervous wreck with a discouraging past and personality disorders abound, it's apparent at that first dinner scene that he's a kid in that 35-year old body -- Tom Hanks in Big.

Clearly being safeguarded by his well-wishing but overbearing parents, they set Leonard up with the Cohen's daughter (Shaw) in attempt to get their son back on track. Thrown in the plans is a neighbor, Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She's a bit of a wild one, a loose cannon with a lust for a married man (Elias Koteas) and an attraction to Leonard -- whether it's as a friend or a lover is never certain.

James Gray, in making a seemingly cut-and-paste cop/brother drama We Own the Night, showed glimpses of real promise in an otherwise decent, yet forgettable film. Here, he's at the top of his game. Brooklyn never looked so dispiriting and bleak -- filmed with almost all of the color sucked dry and replaced with stark greys and blues.

The outdoor scenes, especially the numerous roof-top chats with Michelle and Leonard, are framed and captured exquisitely. The performances couldn't be more appropriate as Phoenix finds some nervous, immature child inside himself that we really haven't seen from him. Gone is the beard, the glasses, the gum and Casey Affleck -- within 10 minutes I had almost forgotten all about it. Paltrow plays the mid-life crisis participant Michelle with an endearing quality despite the feisty emotions. Shaw, playing the Jewish daddy's girl, is wholesome and sweet, the antithesis of Leonard's desire.

The final moments of Two Lovers pits Leonard in a situation where he inevitably must make a decision on which of the two women will rescue him from his solitary bedroom, his persistent, but loving parents and his monotonous, wandering and allegorical laundry deliveries. Both women represent two radically different lifestyles, two radically different people. It's very clear which person/ life he would like to choose, but the choice isn't merely a flip-of-the-coin. As a result, the closing moments are sneaky and poetic in their implications.

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