Review: “Two Lovers” (2009)

Two_LoversLeonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is a stumbler. He stumbles into two relationships — with the stunning, troubled Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a kind-hearted family friend — clumsily and without purpose. He stumbles into jobs, hobbies, social interactions. Things simply seem, in Leonard’s addled mind, to happen to him, never the other way around. This mix of confusion and listlessness makes him a perfect disaster of a lover but one fascinating and inscrutable antihero.

In another movie starring another actor, a character like this would be an annoying mess — whiny and sad and grating, able to see opportunities for change but unable to seize them. But director James Gray has a flair for understatement. Phoenix, one of those actors who seems perfect for every part, has a gift for softening our hearts toward the least desirable characters, ones so dumb or damaged or purposeless they’re stuck in a hamster wheel of bad choices. This director/actor pairing is something of a revelation, and one that makes the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers” more of a compelling character study than a soppy melodrama about a love triangle.

The film’s title gives away the major crisis: “Two Lovers” revolves around Leonard’s romantic entanglement with Michelle and Vinessa. Sandra, who is sweet and undemanding, likes Leonard perhaps more than any woman should like a 30-something man medicated for depression who moved in the Brooklyn apartment of his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after failed suicide attempts. Why this man, so obviously unstable? Sandra’s attraction to Leonard hints that she may have an affinity for strays. But she’s far more dependable than Michelle, the willowy blonde Leonard meets outside his parents’ apartment. Michelle plays see-saw with Leonard’s heart, still fragile from a broken engagement, by inviting him to meet her friends, then weeping to him at 4 a.m. about her married boyfriend (Elias Koteas) and her crushing indecision. (Note: There’s a crucial difference between women who call at 4 p.m. and ones who call at 4 a.m.) While Michelle fascinates and excites Leonard, Sandra calms his anxieties. She accepts his distractedness without question. Both women fill different needs, and so he cannot envision losing either.

The fact that neither woman feels like the de-facto “right choice” illustrates the subtle sophistication of the beautifully lensed “Two Lovers,” based on Luchino Visconti’s “Le Notti Bianche.” This is not the kind of film where answers are easy, motivations are transparent and characters are staid. In fact, the people in “Two Lovers” are impossible to stereotype. Though Leonard’s mother Ruth (Rossellini turns in a nuanced performance) worries about her son, she doesn’t hover or smother. Nor does she force him to see Sandra as a cure-all, the good girl who will morph him from a troubled boy into a mature, respectable man. All Ruth knows is that Leonard has problems that run much deeper than post-relationship grief. Her patience with him, her willingness to let him find his own way makes her one of the film’s most moving characters. 

Shaw, too, does a fine job creating a love interest who is not a boring cardboard cutout, the Sandra O. to Paltrow’s Rizzo. (To be fair, Paltrow does avoid turning Michelle into a cliche, instead letting us see humanity in her insecurity — because women that attractive always seem to be insecure.) Sandra goes into her relationship with Leonard with eyes wide open: She knows he has depths she can’t touch and she loves him still. Yet Shaw makes Sandra’s timidity and no-questions-asked acceptance of Leonard tell us she’s not as simple as she seems. She has demons she won’t let us see.

And that Joaquin Phoenix. An egocentric kook, maybe, but me oh my can that actor make somber, beaten-down and complex look new and shiny every time he plays them. He has a resume littered with broken characters, but Leonard may be his best yet — vulnerable and maddening and touching in one fell swoop. How sad, then, that Phoenix has said “Two Lovers” was his last movie. If that’s the case, it’s fitting he’s gone out with a whimper, not a bang. Sometimes it’s the whimpers that hit hardest.

Grade: A-

17 Responses

  1. Being such a Joaquin Phoenix fan I’m surprised it took you so long to catch up with this one. It is definitely his best collaboration with James Gray to date. I say to date as I a confident he will come out of retirement some day. I would love to see the reaction to this film of anyone who went into it not knowing what it was about. The title makes it sound like a romantic comedy, it is far from that. The end of the film was both fitting and tragic and the least romantic way a film could have ended!

    • Another case of “this movie came nowhere near me.” Someday I will move out of this blasted Southland where good limited-release movies fear to dwell.

      Thanks to other comments and the fact that Joaquin was involved, I knew I wasn’t signing on for a romantic comedy. But it would have been a BLAST to see it with someone who did! And I could not say enough about the ending. I love that there is closure, but it is not the least bit comforting or reassuring. So true to life. I love that.

      • I’m pretty luck with that, I live fifteen/twenty minutes drive from the centre of Birmingham and lots of good cinemas. The one I usually go to used to show a lot of European and Asian films but unfortunately have dropped some of those in favour of Bollywood recently.

        I don’t know anyone who went to see this thinking it was a romantic comedy but when I went to see Rachel Getting Married I sat behind a couple who had got their Anne Hathaway movies mixed up and thought they were going to see Bride Wars.

      • Thank you for that, Fandango — I really needed a good laugh today! “Rachel Getting Married” instead of “Bride Wars”! Classic.

  2. Surprised this movie got such a good rating, i figured since Phoenix was on his way out of the acting world he’d give a ‘i don’t give a crap’ performance.

    • I’m not sure Phoenix is capable of doing an “I don’t give a crap” performance. I mean, he could have done that with “To Die For,” where he just played a dumb teenager, and he was even good in that.

  3. I first heard of this film, if you can call it that, when Joaquin was on the Letterman show. It was very uncomfortable. Anyway, I am so glad you reviewed this because I would have gone on not knowing anything about the film.
    I love Joaquin and he can do little wrong in front of the camera and I look forward to adding this to my Netflix list!

    • I’m still trying to pretend that Letterman appearance didn’t happen. So far, no dice!

      This one is one of Joaquin’s best aside from “Buffalo Soldiers,” “Quills” and “Reservation Road.” Definitely a must-see if you’re a fan. I also was quite impressed with Vinessa Shaw, who up to this point hasn’t done much serious acting.

  4. Fantastic review, you really caught parts of the film in such a good way. I think I have to watch this one again, as was not overally impressed when I first saw the film. I thought Joaquin was very good (as you said perfect for every role), I dont think I have seen him put in a bad performance.

    • My love for Joaquin is unwavering, so naturally I would tend to agree with you that he is incapable of “phoning it in.” Even in “Ladder 49″ I liked him. He’s great when he’s subtle (like “Two Lovers”), great when he’s a villain (“Gladiator”), great when he’s a horny teen-age boy.

  5. Meredith, if there’s anyone who should entice Joaquin to go back into acting, it’s YOU! I too am a fan but I won’t be able to put it into words as eloquently as you did. It’s a shame that people like Heath Ledger died far too soon, and Joaquin quit the acting business, whilst there’s a plethora of other actors I wish would find a different profession! This is in my super-long queue of must-see flicks to get to before year’s end… in fact, I need a full month just to watch all your recommendation. I love your masterful way to end your review “Sometimes it’s the whimpers that hit hardest”… this review is A+!

    • Maybe I should start a campaign to knock some sense into Joaquin’s head. You think lines like that bit about the whimpers might do it? Here’s to hoping…

  6. ‘Two Lovers’ is my favourite movie this year. It’s aesthetically beautiful, has a solid score and all three leads are great. There’s something very tragic about this film that really got to me when I watched it. I saw it way back in March or April and still today nothing has replaced it as my favourite of 2009.

  7. I am so pissed at Joaquin for quitting acting. As great as Olivier is I always though Pheonix would be the perfect Heathcliff opposite Kate Winslet.

    I’m yet to see this. I don’t know if it’s out here yet. Will have to check.

    • So true! Heathcliff is one of my least favorite characters in all of literature, but if Joaquin was playing him I’d love him.

      Grumble, grumble…

  8. [...] “Two Lovers” Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two [...]

  9. [...] of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever [...]

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