A Despondent “Two Lovers”

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Director James Gray has always been somewhat of a Cannes Film Festival sweetheart, though often his films have struck me as too melodramatic and too much of a different age. But this time with “Two Lovers”, his filmmaking style has come to fruition. The old fashioned storytelling along with the melodrama actually works. Hollywood filmmaking of a bygone era is revisited to exceptional effect here. The cell phones are a dead giveaway that the film takes place in the post-2000 world. Basically, our hero, Leonard (played by Joaquin Phoenix in a well-modulated performance) lost his fiancé and makes half-hearted attempts at suicide when we first see him. Uncomfortably, Leonard moved back in with his concerned, doting Jewish parents in their old apartment in Brighton Beach, an unfashionable, firmly middle-class section of Brooklyn, just outside of Coney Island. This novel situation brings him much internal strife. The sepia-toned cinematography and unglamorous atmosphere of authentic immigrant Brooklyn reinforces the somberness and sanguineness of the proceedings. At times, Leonard seems like he’s sleepwalking his way through a lonely existence. And yet, he meets and likes an attractive Jewish girl, Sandra (heartbreakingly rendered by Vinessa Shaw), which has been arranged by his parents, of course. Sandra and Leonard will not just be a couple, but rather a business merger of their respective parents adding an additional layer of stress to the proceedings. No matter, Leonard continues to trudge through life aimlessly.

Eventually he bumps into a very distraught, beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed girl, Michelle (a disturbingly raw performance by Gwyneth Paltrow). Leonard develops an unwavering love, bordering on infatuation toward Ms. Paltrow’s Michelle. At times, Leonard forsakes and distances himself from Sandra, the good girl from a good Jewish family. He misses dinner with her, cancels meeting, and makes fawning, clandestine phone calls to his exotic shiksa lover. Hence, we arrive at the title of this film. The film builds to unexpected though warranted conclusion. All the actors are at the top of their game including an older but still formidable Isabella Rosellini as Leonard’s concerned mother. Much has been made of Joaquin Phoenix’s drastic move from forsaking acting altogether and embracing a career as a musician. Hopefully, that is just temporary. If not, his performance in “Two Lives” will stand the test of time and live as one of the best performances in his limited but impressive oeuvre. Interestingly, “Two Lives” stands alone as one of the few romantic comedies made today without the comedy. Something Hollywood just does not seem to make anymore possibly due to fiscal and feasibility reasons, or perhaps the passage and extinction of a long gone era. Namely, something that does not seem fit snugly into a preconceived genre any longer. After all, we are in the YouTube age where everyone watches downloaded movies on a screen the size of a Junior Mint. Mr. Gray growth as filmmaker (he writes and directs his own films) has been elucidating to watch. Conceivably, he will continue to make films of outstanding merit, even if working against the tide.


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