Betty or Veronica?
2009 // USA // James Gray // February 24, 2009 // Theatrical Print
B- - Two Lovers reaffirms director James Gray's solemnly precocious talent for telling discreetly compelling stories that should, by all rights, be outright stifling in their familiarity. In We Own the Night, Gray lent both a Shakespearean howl and a profoundly personal coloring to the tale of a man tugged by competing loyalties until tragedy pushes him over a threshold. Now Gray, returning with Joaquin Phoenix to the marvelously sagging Brooklyn landscape, provides his spin on a creaky romantic trope: a man's choice between a stable brunette and a free-spirited blonde. The sensory pleasures on display elevate Two Lovers, as do Gray's infusions of thematic and metaphorical texture, rescuing it from the sheer unpleasantness of its characters and a gnawing sense that we've heard this song before. The quiet, observant qualities to Two Lovers stand in contrast to the alleged seriousness of clumsy, oh-so-serious contemporary pap such as Frost/Nixon and The Reader, but the sheer willfulness of the film's sedate "adultness" results in an unfortunate aura of dreariness and obsequious modesty. It's an easy film to enjoy and even admire, but will anyone remember it in three months, let alone three years?
Phoenix has always excelled at man-child roles with a bit of worldly tinting at the edges. Perhaps it's the naked moistness in those eyes, ringed with permanent charcoal-dust, and the way they play off his self-conscious, doughy smile. Even in his most outwardly confident personas—Max California, Merrill Hess—Phoenix conveys a lingering shyness, dribbled with thinly concealed doubts about his character's abilities and station. Never has this been used for finer effect than in Two Lovers, where Gray capitalizes on the actor;s affinity for wounded bewilderment and uneasy masculinity. Phoenix's Leonard Kraditor, the thirty-something son of Jewish dry cleaners, finds himself in a kind of sad-sack secondary adolescence in the wake of a scuttled engagement and sketchy psychological tribulations. The film opens with a half-hearted suicide attempt, and from there we migrate to Leonard's bedroom in his parents' apartment, still furnished as a teenage boy's might be and littered with the detritus of his obsessions and distractions: photographic prints, DVDs, and a portrait of his absent fiancé. Gray has an eye for spaces that are somewhat resistant to contemporary gloss, and his ragged Brighton Beach is rife with them, in contrast to the film's gleaming glimpses of Manhattan. Just as worthy of attention is Gray's striking sound design, which revels in low ambient tones and the rasp of winter winds on rooftops.
Leonard's mother, Ruth, is a sour-faced, protective matron, cursed with an epic nosy streak. Perhaps because she is portrayed by Isabella Rossellini—jowly but still magnetic—Ruth doesn't seem to harbor any poisonous purpose, but we can feel Leonard's suffocation just the same. Improbably, two beautiful young women enter Leonard's troubled life nearly simultaneously. The Sensible Girl is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of another dry cleaning entrepreneur who is on the cusp of buying out Leonard's family. Sandra represents everything Leonard should want (by his parents' estimation): a pretty Jewess who is thoroughly smitten with him, and an access point for a slight upgrade in his family's prospects. (The usual euphemism is a "smart match.") Sandra's comfort around him and her reserved sexiness put a glint in Leonard's eyes, but he betrays a bit of restlessness about their rapid courtship. Enter Michelle (Gwenyth Paltrow), a willowy wild girl who has recently moved into an apartment across the courtyard. Dim and narcissistic, but effortlessly desirable, Michelle is the sort of woman who seems to inhabit a separate cosmos from Leonard. Yet here she is, following Leonard on a tour of his parents' knick-knacks and curiously disposed to his vulnerable charms. There's the little matter of Michelle's older (married) boyfriend, but for Leonard, hope springs eternal, as it does for all emotionally stunted and morally negligent Nice Guys.
Gray is following a recognizable melodramatic template, but even as he compresses his story down into a questionably dense time frame, he slathers on ambitious and engaging subtexts. The performances are uniformly excellent and credible, and as a result the characters never degenerate into ludicrous metaphors. Yet the dichotomies in Leonard's dilemma are stark. Sandra embodies a submission to others' expectations, an acceptance of ethnic and religious identity, and an extension of the Oedipal unease the ripples through Leonard's home life. (Sandra's well-intentioned reassurance, "I want to take care of you," seems an ill omen to the stifled Leonard.) The emotionally troubled and thoroughly WASP-y Michelle, meanwhile, represents contravention of social obligations, wide-open possibilities, and empathy with (rather than sympathy for) Leonard's own inner anguishes. Gray's direction and his screenplay with co-writer Ric Menello register these aspects of the story without feeling the need to brazenly state them, delivering abundant, whispered drama.
Two Lovers' fundamental problem is not that it courts flippant dismissal from the viewer, which is what I expected. (Two gorgeous women? These are the problems you want to have.) Gray paints Leonard as a broken man who is wincingly susceptible to confusion about his desires, and thereby prevents the story from descending into a soapy, vacuous tale of deception and betrayal. Yet while the viewer might understand Leonard, his hopeless immaturity precludes the possibility that they will grow to like him or trust him. That's a serious deficit in a film that spends nearly every minute of its running time following his interpersonal gambits and fumbles, and asks—with a kind of muted desperation—that we feel his pain, and deeply. More troubling, the film never challenges Leonard to confront the anxieties that drive his indecisiveness, or asks him to suffer tangible consequences for his ill-advised tightrope act on the Sandra-Michelle dilemma. Annoyingly, the narrative provides an escape hatch at the last minute which protects the innocent from heartbreak, sidestepping anything approaching a reckoning for Leonard's cravenness and emotional recklessness. It's a dismal and consequence-free conclusion to a visually rich and emotionally authentic work. In other words, Gray sort of breaks your heart.
The film's mood is also problematic, for while Gray astutely avoid matching emotional highs with aesthetic histrionics, he veers a bit too much in the direction of inertness. The result is a film that palpably wants to be admired for its low-key approach while maintaining the viewer's focus on performance and theme. It's all so decisively and soporifically tasteful that one can't shake the feeling of a bait-and-switch: mere competent, intriguing drama masquerading as audacity and vigor. Call it a respectful artistic oppressiveness, one that generates sufficient discomfort with the film's aims that the viewer can't ever truly fall in love with it. A pity, as Gray's cinematic sensibilities are otherwise generally outstanding, indicative of a commanding visual fluency and a sophisticated appreciation for the intricacies of motive and loyalty.