Leonard 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.