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Two Lovers

November 17, 2011

Two Lovers (2008)
Director: James Gray
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw

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Synopsis: Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a thirtysomething New Yorker tries to commit suicide by throwing himself in the river. After being fished out by a passer-by, things start to look up for Leonard as the daughter of a family friend, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), and a charismatic neighbour, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), come into his romantic radar.

Review: James Gray’s latest bluesy Brooklyn-set drama, Two Lovers, is as engrossing and impressive a film as his earlier efforts, The Yards and We Own the Night. In a sense, the film is as simple as its title suggests – “two lovers” – as Joaquin Phoenix’s character Leonard has polar life/romantic dilemmas represented through the dichotomy of Vinessa Shaw’s safe, caring daughter of a family friend, Sandra, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s captivating, but unreliable, free spirit, Michelle, who lives in the same block as Leonard.

Initially what jars is that the three protagonists all seem a little old for their melodramatic romantic issues (they’re all in their mid-thirties at least), but ultimately the tactic works as representative of a form of ennui and repressed development, especially in the character of Leonard as he struggles to manifest the sort of responsible adult life he would like. Some commentators have also complained that the homespun Sandra is actually much prettier than Michelle (making Leonard’s desire for Michelle less believable), but I think it makes rhetorical sense for Sandra to be more wholesome and conventional looking, with Michelle’s attraction stemming less from her looks than her sense of unpredictability and worldliness. Once one accepts this dynamic, the story plays out expertly – never resorting to melodrama, and leaving its characters in naturalistic dramatic scenarios and a suitably wintry Brooklyn and Manhattan milieu.

One thing the film definitely has going for it is lead actor Joaquin Phoenix. He’s such an interesting performer – not at all actorly with his imperfect diction and unusual, stooping physique – but he has such an innate vulnerability and rawness that more calibrated actors couldn’t possibly replicate. The film reaches a poignant and graceful climax as the central dilemma unravels, and while the ending is predictable (huge spoiler alert – Michelle ditches Leonard at the last, leaving him with the ever-willing Sandra), it does fit in with the idea that there’s an inevitability to Leonard’s existential frustration, and that he’s liable to remain entrapped within his enclosed familial locus. (November 2011)

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