Joaquin Phoenix. What comes to mind when you hear that name? Two-time Academy Award nominee? Younger brother of River Phoenix? Or crazy, bearded rapper wannabe who embarrassed himself, either intentionally or not, on a variety of occasions over the last several months? Regardless, what he isn't known for is his "final" movie Two Lovers, which he was supposed to be promoting on David Letterman during the now infamous gum chewing interview.
Director and co-writer James Gray must have been grinding his teeth during the interview and the subsequent antics to follow. Here was Phoenix making a complete and utter fool of himself when he should have been actively pitching the perfectly good movie Two Lovers to audiences. The movie is a surprisingly well done film that received little attention, somewhat surprisingly given the media buzz given to its star at the time of its release.
Two Lovers is about a troubled man named Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix), a son who mumbles his way through a dead-end delivery job and contemplates suicide. An educated man once set for great things, he currently lives with his parents. But his life begins to look up when he meets good girl Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), who he begins to date. Unfortunately for Sandra, his heart really belongs to his wild and massively troubled upstairs neighbor Michelle (Gwenyth Paltrow), who is having an affair with a rich, married man. As Sandra falls in love with him, he falls desperately in love with Michelle - but is she interested in him?
Two Lovers is about a love triangle, obviously, but it is not a cliché, sex-driven story that works best to the tune of porno music. Gray slowly builds tension throughout his story (co-written by Ric Menello) and sets the stage for an utterly believable and tragic tale of desperate romance.
Phoenix delivers his best performance since Walk the Line, and perhaps the best performance of his career. He is flawed but believable, awkward and yet likable, reserved and yet strangely charismatic. Leonard is the most complicated and gray character he's had to play, and he walks that fine line (no pun intended) of not giving the audience too much or too little. It's hard to relate to many of his mannerisms, and yet, when all is said and done, this is his most relatable performance. He's not a Roman emperor or a famed singer or an undercover cop; he's just a guy who likes one woman more than the other, but has decided to hedge his bets a little.
Paltrow and Shaw also turn in fine performances. Paltrow, who made a great comeback of sorts with her performance in last year's Iron Man, is once again very strong here, showing she has a lot of range and is perfectly happy taking supporting roles when they work to her advantage. Shaw doesn't get a whole lot to do, but she plays her part as a caring and truly good person especially well. Other supporting cast members are good as well.
Two Lovers is well written and well directed, with acting that creates synergy. The movie is by no means a fast-paced one, but there's something about it that keeps you coming back for more. It's disturbing and yet it's not, captivating and yet simple. Most importantly, it is a rich film that keeps you guessing as to its outcome. Two Lovers isn't for everyone, but for those who like raw, realistic drama, this one is right on key.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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