Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Two Lovers Review
By: Jenny Halper
I’d like to take a moment to thank James Gray for Two Lovers, a romance that features not one but two complex female characters and ends bravely with indecision. From the first shot when Joaquin Phoenix plunges into the waters of Brighton Beach to Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of lover #2, a madly-in-love attorney’s assistant who admits she’s not one for reading and shouts across her fire escape like the irrepressible teenager she hasn’t quite grown out of, everything about this film is brave.
Gray’s previous films include Little Odessa and We Own the Night, the former a dark depiction of a history of crime. Although Lovers isn’t nearly as gritty, it has the same sense of authenticity; over the course of two hours you feel like you’re spending time with these people rather than watching a movie about them.
The movie opens with Phoenix’s Leonard moving back in with his parents after breaking up with his fiancé. Now he’s sleeping in the bed he’s had since high school while working at a Laundromat his father runs and he seems poised to inherit. When business associates come over for dinner, they bring their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who is so beautiful and sweet one senses he’d fall for her immediately if both sets of parents weren’t so keen on the match. But they are, and date number two is a lunch with their fathers that he ditches to follow new next door neighbor Michelle (Paltrow) to her job in the city. Michelle gives him her cell number so that “we can text.”
As Leonard tentatively courts Sandra, he quickly becomes close friends with Michelle, but she’s involved in a poisonous affair with a lawyer at her firm. The lawyer, married with children, has stationed her in Brighton Beach – he’s paying for the apartment – because his mother lives nearby and he can visit her without alarming his wife. Completely oblivious to Leonard’s attraction to her (and to much else) Michelle asks him to tag along on dates and ascertain the older man’s intentions.
It’s a testament to Paltrow’s performance that Michelle – who should be very, very irritating – is sympathetic; watching her unknowingly invade Leonard’s heart and his fledgling relationship with Sandra is a bit like watching a toddler spill ink all over silk: she means well, she just doesn’t know any better. It’s also easy to see why Leonard, who Phoenix plays as a charmer who masks everything, is so taken with her – she’s honest and free-spirited, or at least seems that way, whereas Sandra’s overbearing family is part of the bargain.
I should mention that the supporting cast, which includes Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother, is top notch, and that the Brighton Beach setting evokes an old fashioned community that is simultaneously oppressive and comforting. Ultimately, though, what makes Two Lovers so effective is that Gray refuses to choose sides, and asks the audience to instead, which is almost impossible: if Sandra’s an anchor, Michelle is a hot air balloon.