Director: James Gray (We Own the Night, The Yards, Little Odessa)
Screenplay: James Gray, Ric Menello
Producers: James Gray, Donna Gigliotti, Anthony Katagas
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 110 min.
Irecall walking away from James Gray’s We Own the Night thinking that I’d just seen the beginning of something special. Though the film was overlooked by critics and the general public there was something about it that sat with me long after the credits rolled. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Bobby Green was understated but powerful and Gray’s direction was demure and beautiful.
I instantly paid a little more attention when a new Phoenix/Gray collaboration was announced and when the trailer for Two Lovers premiered, I knew it was a film I had to see even if the trailer was misleading (as I assumed it was). The trailer does this film very little justice.
Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a man who moved back with his parents after his ex-fiance’s family canceled their wedding. He took the breakup badly, retreating into a world of self abuse and attempted suicides eventually returning home to start rebuilding his life. But months have passed and though he appears to be getting better, his parents are visibly worried and they want him to move on with his life. They devise a plan to set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a local business owner. Things start off well and the two seem to hit it off but things aren’t as perfect as they appear. Immediately after meeting Sandra, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new upstairs neighbor and becomes instantly smitten by both her looks and her personality. In an instant Leonard goes from meek and shy to juggling two very different women in two very different relationships.
As with his previous films, Gray and cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay use their surroundings as an additional character to the story. The city is as alive and important as the characters living in it and Gray isn’t afraid to let the film drown momentarily in the culture. Some of my favourite scenes in We Own the Night were those that showed the city in all it’s beauty and though here the truly breathtaking moments are those between the characters, I love that Gray lingers on small scenes that add little to the story (a walk through the city, an extended scene in a nightclub). But the small moments are fantastic. He’s mastered the art of capturing the interaction between characters and there are moments in this film that are nothing short of spectacular. There’s a rawness to the interaction and emotion on-screen and you can almost feel the awkwardness or intensity between the characters but never do the scenes feel put-on or played up. Certainly kudos must be given to the actors who do an outstanding job and though Phoenix is excellent in his role, I was really taken by Vinessa Shaw’s performance which was tender while never being weak.
What is most impressive about Two Lovers is the direction Gray and co-writer Ric Menello take Leonard’s character. He begins as a meek and depressing figure, the type of person you can’t help but feel sorry for and yet, as the story develops we come to see a man torn between two women and in the end a man who we both pity and hate. The script asks that Phoenix walk a fine line between love and hate and he does so amazingly well never once alienating the audience though you’ll likely be angry at his actions. And that doesn’t even touch on the complexity of the relationships that Leonard is involved in. On the one hand is Sandra, a grounded woman who wants to look after the obviously broken Leonard; on the other hand there’s Michelle, the free spirited soul who is even more broken than Leonard. Leonard’s choice is not really surprising but the events that follow his decision opens the door to more than a handful of questions on relationships and the choices we make and why we make them.
I expected good things from Gray but Two Lovers is an impressive film which surpasses any expectations I may have had. It’s an emotional and beautiful film, one that will likely change with time and whose appreciation will grow with additional viewings. This marks the coming of age of a great talent in American cinema and one I hope won’t be forgotten before he’s clearly recognized.
Two Lovers made it’s way to DVD on Tuesday, June 30th and the release includes a director’s commentary and an interesting HDNet preview of the film which includes a short but interesting interview with Gray.
Click “play” to see the trailer:
Flixster Profile for Two Lovers