Never let it be said that alt-weeklies have given up on irony. We haven't. Case in point: James Gray's new film, Two Lovers, will go down in the collective consciousness as the final film Joaquin Phoenix made before he went nuts, got fat, tried to make it as a rapper, blew any chance of being taken seriously while on Letterman and supernova'd so hugely that he turned into Ben Stiller material at the Oscars ceremony. All of that—and whatever the future holds—is far more entertaining than the character he plays in the movie.
It would be great to be able to say that via Two Lovers, Phoenix went out on top. But although it's garnered some decent reviews, it's really a shame that a guy with his intensity decided to hang up his acting jockstrap for good amid the release of such a dull movie. It's been billed as a romantic drama—but it's more like romantic melodrama.Phoenix plays Leonard, a depressed and slightly suicidal Brooklyn man who has returned home to live with his parents and help his dad with the family's dry-cleaning business. It's a small, average life, and his folks (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) worry about and care for him and are willing to sacrifice almost anything to see him succeed—so much so that when his dad prepares to sell the shop to Michael Cohen (Bob Ari), both families think he would make a good match for Cohen's sweet, pretty daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw).
At the very least, she would be a great match for him. She's smart and interesting, and she's got a thing for him. But Leonard suddenly has eyes for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a dippy blonde who's just moved into the building. She is everything foreign to him—a Manhattan shiksa who comes from money and culture and clubs and parties. So while he's courting Sandra, he's falling for Michelle. And he plays it, insinuating himself into her life as a friend, thinking he might have a shot, since she's actually the mistress of Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas), a lawyer who comes from roots not dissimilar to Leonard's. Ronald treats her poorly, and he's married, so Leonard exploits that to drive a wedge between them.
Being with Michelle would mean a complete break from his family and from his past. He'd let down his family, possibly jeopardize his dad's business deal and devastate Sandra. What's an emotionally stunted guy to do?
Just like in real life, a lot of people make terrible decisions in Two Lovers. But that's not what makes the film uninteresting—certainly, it's been a wet-dreamy episode of schadenfreude, watching Phoenix make his own ridiculous decisions over the last few months. No, though he works hard and emotes a great deal in Two Lovers, the issue is that it's almost unfathomable that either of these women would be into him, either as a friend or a lover—and it's equally unfathomable that Paltrow would think this is a film worthy of showing skin. Leonard's just not a particularly likeable guy, and while you never want to see someone making self-destructive choices, it's definitely ironic that Phoenix's own train wreck of a real life (unless it's a hoax for the film his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, is making) is so much more entertaining.
Gray wisely set his film in Brighton Beach, still an old-school Brooklyn neighborhood, and let the locale serve as another of the movie's co-stars. It's shot nicely enough, and it's a relief to see him move away from the cops-and-guns pictures he's made over the years. Still, you always feel you've seen the stories in James Gray's movies told before. Sometimes he still gets them right—this time, unlike his leading man's new persona, he got it dull.