Two Lovers
Reviewed in October 2008

Director: James Gray. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas. Screenplay: James Gray and Richard Menello (based on the short story "White Nights" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky).

Photo © 2009 Lionsgate/Magnolia Pictures/2929 Entertainment
I still, still cannot understand why James Gray's We Own the Night didn't earn more of its critical due last year or why I couldn't get a single person to see it, not even devoted filmgoers, after widespread and vociferous recommendations. So not only did I head into Two Lovers feeling protective of the film and its maker, both of which received a general drubbing at Cannes, but I caught myself after the screening trying to persuade myself of virtues that I simply didn't experience or believe while I was watching it. Hand it to Gray and his actors for running with such a pure concept, without condescension or fuss: Joaquin Phoenix's parents are quietly pushing him toward a relationship with family-friend Vinessa Shaw, but Phoenix is more electrified by wild and free Gwyneth Paltrow, who beckons across the apartment courtyard but may well spell trouble, or at least profound disappointment. Gray and co-scripter Richard Menello don't weigh the story with sideplots or false significance, and the actors deliver these characters without the kinds of showy, gratuitous embellishments that actors sometimes provide when they don't trust the director or the simplicity of the script. Still, I'll be the first to concede that Two Lovers would have gained from more complexity, from a less antiquarian dichotomy between patient good girls and erratic party girls, and from a narrative structure that didn't broadcast the Paltrow character's essential unreliability quite so early. Phoenix in some moments finds a light, gently comic touch that is a boon to those scenes and a breakthrough for this actor, but even when he's deftly spinning a tin-eared line into a charming little throwaway, or when he's flavoring the scene with a spontaneous or puzzling gesture, there's a bit too much of that Marlon-picking-up-the-glove determination behind these choices, as though his "spontaneity" is actually a pragmatic tack. An early suicide attempt, complete with potent sound design, confers a life-and-death gravity on the picture that its story about a faltering manchild with a frustrated crush doesn't fully earn. And while it's nice to see Paltrow break free of those peevish personae she embraced, however potently, in Sylvia and Proof, she doesn't endow the movie with as much detail or charisma as she probably should, nor as much as she might have managed if Gray had restricted her character to the kind of exalting, peripheral presence that might better have justified Phoenix's impulsive and inobservant responses.

More intriguing are Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov as Phoenix's parents, both of them biting their tongues about Phoenix and his potential life-choices, but they remain minor roles, hampered further by the script's irritating bashfulness about the Jewishness of the family, a detail that is concertedly raised and then just as pointedly dropped. Two Lovers has a feeling for location and texture that lots of movies don't even attempt, and as in all Gray movies (including the bad one, Little Odessa), there are still shots and fleeting moments that communicate more about time and character than do several of the extended, scripted scenes. Even with motifs as simple as cellphones and text-messaging, Gray captures something about the contemporary obstacles to easy and focused affection, and he also drums up some interesting tension between these bleeping, intrusive gadgets and the old-fashioned Hollywood classicism of the film's predominant style. Still, that doesn't feel like enough payoff for a movie that feels gun-shy and hemmed in by this redirection in Gray's career. Maybe he really does need some Russian gangsters on the scene to conjure and release his talent? I'll keep plugging for Gray and for We Own the Night in particular, but while I didn't dislike or resent Two Lovers, it's hard to imagine recommending it. Grade: C

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