Monday, February 9, 2009
James Gray's Two Lovers begins with a man jumping off a Brighton Beach pier, hoping to drown, yet ultimately too fearful to go through with it. Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a nice-guy schlub who's moved back in with his Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov). Arriving home, drenched from head to toe, his worried mother doesn't seem too surprised at her son's condition. He's attempted suicide at least one other time, we'll learn later, and is on medication to combat his depression. His fiancee had left him after a genetic test indicated that any offspring of theirs would likely suffer a debilitating disease and die after one year. Soon, he meets two women. One is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of a dry cleaner who plans on merging his company with that of Leonard's dad. She is a sensible woman from a good Jewish family that Leonard's parents hope will get him out of his funk. He also meets a neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a charmingly neurotic beauty that he finds himself instantly attracted to. The apartment she stays at is right across the courtyard from his window, and is provided to her by her married lover (Elias Koteas) who comes to see her when visiting his mother. The plot could easily form the basis for a typical romantic comedy were it not in the hands of Gray (We Own the Night), with Sandra playing the vanilla girl who stands in the way of Leonard's pursuit of his dream girl, Michelle. But Gray treats the proceedings with seriousness and sympathy for all of his characters, especially Leonard. In this, his third collaboration with Phoenix (The Yards), Gray seems to be maturing somewhat. Like in his previous films, Gray confounds expectations he has deliberately encouraged, leading us up to the predictable conclusion and then turning away with subtlety to provide a more realistic alternative. So when Leonard's mom is shown to be a nosy old biddy, for instance, it's not to imply that she is domineering and may be at the root of his problems with women. It is to demonstrate how fragile he is after his suicide attempts, the implication being that his mom feels she may have failed him once and is unwilling to do so again. Leaving behind the melodrama of his earlier crime pictures, Gray also hones in on another strength evident in his earlier films, the ability to elicit outstanding performances of great emotional depth. It's a real shame that Phoenix is leaving acting behind to pursue a rap career. Supposedly his "last" performance, this is perhaps the most touching performance of his career. As Leonard, Phoenix reveals the lonely soul of a man abandoned by love who still reaches out for someone to save him. Phoenix uses his best features, his hooded eyes, to great effect here, alternately lifting and lowering his gaze as if to unveil and shroud his wounded heart to at least the viewer, if to no one else. And strangely enough, a goofy rap on his first outing with Michelle instantly endears him to her and us, the viewers, as well. Gray underscores the allure that Michelle holds for Leonard in some interesting ways. When they trade cell numbers in order for her to be able to start texting him, it immediately characterizes their relationship with touches of modernity, secrecy and excitement, a way out for Leonard from the path of tradition he feels locked into in Brighton Beach. Gray usually frames Paltrow (Iron Man) in a blur, both figuratively and literally. The first time Michelle and Leonard go out, he euphorically gets caught up in her Ecstasy-induced haze as they party in a club, the whirl of dancing people and colored lights surrounding them. The picture above demonstrates how only Michelle is in focus when he is with her. But this shot is from early on in the film, and as he (and we) get to know her, the frame's background begins to sharpen. Sandra, on the other hand, represents his roots, and perhaps painfully reminds him of the woman who left him. Gray often depicts her within the context of family, i.e., her brother's bar mitzvah; cancelling a date because of her father's birthday; a New Year's party at Leonard's parents' home. She often prefers coming to see him in person, rather than calling him on the phone. Even her gift of winter gloves to Leonard is a sensible, though unexciting one. As seen in the picture above, Sandra is a natural beauty, dressing conservatively, and wearing little makeup. Gray often shoots Shaw (The Hills Have Eyes) with a wide-angle lens, tying her character into the background, rooting her in Leonard's world. The director, an aspiring painter in his youth, gives Leonard and Sandra's world his typical chiaroscuro lighting, accentuating the contrast between the safety and stability of Sandra's world in Brooklyn, and the glitzy wonder of Michelle's Manhattan life. This upcoming Valentine's Day, if you've had your fill of comedy, but still ache for romance in your cinema, Two Lovers is a great movie to watch. Two Lovers opens in limited release February 13, 2009.