reviewed by Marc Glassman
Two Lovers. James Gray, director and co-writer w/Richard Menello. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard Kraditor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle Rausch), Vinessa Shaw (Sandra Cohen), Moni Moshonov (Reuben Kraditor), Isabella Rossellini (Ruth Kraditor), Elias Koteas (Ronald Blatt)
A contemporary melodrama set among lower middle-class denizens in New York City, James Gray’s new film Two Lovers evokes the psychological, intensely emotional and somewhat didactic American highbrow literature and film of the 1950s. With the short stories of Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and the Oscar-winning films Marty and On the Waterfront as references, it isn’t surprising that much of the film’s appeal comes from an incandescent performance by Joaquin Phoenix, whose brooding presence reminds one of Method acting legends James Dean and (early) Paul Newman. If this is to be Mr. Phoenix’s last acting role, it is certainly a high note: he has created an indelible character in Leonard Kraditor — a man who is an appealing mixture of fragility, desire and near animalistic strength.
Two Lovers is set in Brooklyn, director-writer Gray’s (We Own The Night, Little Odessa) favourite terrain, although here he has placed the drama in the unfashionable district of Brighton Beach, far from trendy Park Slope. Leonard Kraditor, a photographer by inclination, works with his father in the family’s dry-cleaning shop. Nearly suicidal — he makes a failed attempt in the film’s first scene — Leonard is still coping with a failed engagement and loss of a woman who meant everything to him. His parents, hard working Jewish immigrants, have raised him to be ethical and practical. “In times of crisis, one gets on with life,” would be their credo, if they chose to express it in words.
His mother — a quiet, intense Isabella Rossellini — and father (Israeli veteran Moni Moshonov) have found a new woman for Leonard, Sandra Cohen, the daughter of a highly successful dry-cleaning business associate. Sandra, played charmingly by Vinessa Shaw, is a Jewish mother’s dream: good looking, dark haired and willing to commit to a relationship to her son.
Leonard begins a relationship with Sandra — but then the fates intervene. Michelle, a thin, intense blonde moves into the Kraditor’s apartment building and immediately dominates Leonard’s thoughts and desires. Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance of Michelle matches Phoenix’s Leonard: you see their matched fragility and desperate attempts to fit into the hedonistic club scene that both feel they should embrace.
Of course, they should embrace each other but Michelle has issues. She’s the kept mistress of a married Manhattan lawyer (nicely essayed by Atom Egoyan regular Elias Koteas) and wants Leonard to be her brother, not her lover. To Leonard, Michelle’s appeal goes far beyond herself: she’s the WASP ideal — in Yiddish, the word is “shiksa” — the goddess who could liberate him from his proletarian Jewish roots. Naturally, Michelle sees none of this: her dreams are set on a life with her lawyer with the solid Leonard as her best friend.
The elements set up by this tale are clearly combustible. One knows that fireworks will transpire before the film’s denouement. It is a measure of James Gray’s plotting skills (along with co-scripter Richard Menello) that Two Lovers moves to an entirely appropriate conclusion.
Heavy on character, plot and atmosphere, this film will strike many as old-fashioned. But the old ways still have their strengths. Two Lovers is a film well worth embracing. And let’s hope that Joaquin Phoenix realizes that, whatever else he aspires to be, he is a great actor. And that gift should never be thrown away.