Two Lovers

2009-10-09 14:03

What it's about:

Depressed and heartsick after his last relationship ended, Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) moves back into his parents' Brooklyn apartment and takes a part-time job at the family dry cleaners. His parents set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of prospective business partners, and the two hit it off. But then Leonard meets his more alluring and volatile neighbour Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman with a wild streak that Leonard is incapable of resisting and a dark past neither are able to escape.

What we thought of it:

If this really is Joaquin Phoenix's purported swansong, his grand final curtain before he embarks on a ludicrous "rap" career, then the world has surely lost a marvel of an actor who was an awkward, likable, infinitely compelling performer at the height of his powers. Two Lovers may not be a tour de force in the way that his eye-catching performances in Gladiator and Walk the Line were, but is still affecting in its intimacy and realistic portrayal of desperate devotion.

Love, and the pursuit of it, is revealed to a be a selfish, often debilitating beast under James Gray's (who also directed Phoenix in We Own the Night) focused eye, as hearts are broken and bruised across the wintry terrain these characters find themselves in. Leonard is revealed to have taken the break-up of his previous relationship very badly after his fiancée moved away, yet he launches into a thrilling, if awkward emotional affair with Michelle even as his relationship with the more stable Sandra deepens.

Watching Leonard play fast and loose with his heart is like watching a train crash in balletic slow motion – you know its all going to end badly, but it's rather beautiful to watch it all fall apart. In the hands of a showier actor, Leonard would have run the risk of coming across as a pretentious loser who deserved everything that was coming to him. But Phoenix, so comfortable at playing the torn and tattered soul, imbues his character with a childlike naivety about the ways of this cruel world and you can't help but read the doom-laden signs behind his muffled words, uneasy gait and the way he can't meet the eyes of the person he is betraying.

The supporting cast brings a sense of calm to proceedings. Hilary Swank-lookalike Shaw emerges as a true find and will hopefully resist the urge to be typecast as the object of affection in the next Judd Apatow gross-out comedy. Isabella Rossellini may look a bit too regal to be playing Leonard's worrywart mother, but the warm relationship between the two is comforting to watch, while chaos reigns elsewhere. Paltrow, amazingly, doesn’t hog her screen time for all it's worth, and glides through Leonard's world like the mythical siren, calling a sailor to shipwreck with her glamorously shiny hair and toned limbs.

We get a few clues into Phoenix's purported rap career as he spits a few nonsensical verses and busts a few moves on a night out on the town with Michelle and her gal pals. It's one of the few light moments in an otherwise perceptive drama that plays its most devastating moments with an understated intensity that nonetheless feels like a minor disaster.

Joaquin Phoenix bows out of the movie business in fine style as a hopeless romantic who finds himself torn between two beautiful women.

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