Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray
screenplay by James Gray and Ric Menello

The new film from James Gray, from a screenplay on which he collaborated with Ric Menello is an unassuming but powerful character piece anchored by a transcendant performance from Joaquin Phoenix, in what may be his final film role. Gray wrote the part specifically for Phoenix - a collaborator on two of his three earlier feature films - before Phoenix announced his intention to quit film acting, and has said that without Phoenix the film would not have gotten made.

That may well be true. Although Gray's three previous films Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night have all been well-reviewed, none has been "box-office gold," and in these days of "opening weekend" madness, without that kind of success it's hard to get a film produced. But with the participation of Phoenix, his Oscar win for Walk The Line still in recent memory, Gray had something to sell.

It is really a sad commentary on how films get made and seen, but it is the industry's current reality. I first saw the film last October at FilmColumbia, and even with stars like Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow it has taken it this long - almost 5 months - to find theatrical release.

The story concerns Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix), who has returned to his parents' home in Brooklyn after a mental breakdown that followed from a broken engagement, and works in his father's dry-cleaning business. Kraditor's stability and maturity are still much in doubt, but his parents clearly want him to resume the trajectory of his former life - find a nice Jewish girl, settle down, take over his father's business.

To that end, Leonard's father (Moni Moshonov) and mother (Isabella Rossolini) plan to merge the business with successful competitor Michael Cohen (Bob Ari) and introduce Leonard to his unmarried daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). All seems to be going smoothly, when Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the mistress of one of the lawyers at the firm where she works who has just been installed by her married paramour in an apartment in the building.

Leonard is immediately attracted to the exotic (to him) and emotionally volatile Michelle. He learns something of her story and she begins to develop a bond of some intimacy with him. The balance of the story revolves around Leonard's "two lovers," and how the twisted triangle they create will resolve itself.

It didn't occur to me during my first screening, but re-watching it for this review, I was struck several times by the thematic resonance the film carries to Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar-winning Marty, updated to the first decade of the 20th Century. Like Marty, Leonard is an adult son, living at home. Like Marty, he has been "disappointed in love," and is both lonely and depressd. Like Marty, he meets a woman who is an appropriate match, but struggles to build a relationship with her.

But it is in this process that the themes of the two films part company - in a way that is instructive of the changes that come to pass over the last half-century. Where Chayefsky's story resolves itself as the gradual ultimately triumphant unfolding of trust and love between two lonely, damaged people, Gray's remains essentially unresolved, with an ambiguous final image that can be read as both resignation and surrender, and as affirmation and recognition.

It is this open, uncertain ending that makes Two Lovers feel so modern - existential, if you will - the sense that there are no happy endings - only transitions from one set of challenges and emotional entanglements to another.

Leonard's indecisiveness, his vulnerability and volatility speak of a modern character, propelled (and undermined) by his undifferentiated freedom (and the freedom of our time) as Marty was by the inhibitions and repression of his. It's an interesting parallel that says something about the road American culture has traveled.

It was H.D. Thoreau who observed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Whether or not that is literally true, there can't be any doubt that even the most perfect life must contain at least some of those moments. Two Lovers explores the question of how much of that "desperation" arises outside of us and how much is self-generated. Leonard's situation, tests the Jungian premise that "mental health is wanting what you get," and some of the most extreme implications of that statement, where acceptance and surrender overlap.

The screenplay is very well-written. Gray and Menello don't waste words. Those they do supply have a sincere feel, couched in the cadences and dialect of the particular "borough-speak" of Leonard's family and their circle, while Michelle's language and way of expressing herself reflects her immersion in a different world. The exchanges between characters are not exaggerated, but held to the kind of spare, faltering dialogue that situations of deep feeling often elicit.

Gray's and Menello's refusal to tie things up in a neat package at the end, to even suggest what the final image may mean over time, is a courageous step for a film seeking commercial theatrical distribution in the US. It isn't any of the kinds of "Hollywood ending" to which American audiences have shown themselves attached, and as such must have proved a hard sell - which may possibly explain the long lag-time between completion of the film and its release. But the film is well-served - much more resonant, more moving and more provocative - because of this refusal to take an easy way out.

I started off this review noting that Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one of the film's greatest strengths. His Leonard is a complex, multi-faceted, talented and sensitive soul - albeit a troubled one. Phoenix manages to embody a character who is at once withdrawn and outgoing, thoughtful and unconscious, playful and obsessive. What he creates is not a "character," but a well-developed, internal-contradiction-plagued human being who is utterly convincing and engaging - as much because of his weaknesses and vulnerabilites as because of this strengths.

Gwyneth Paltrow, brings Michelle to life as an equally intricate interplay of genuine emotional connectedness and need, with neurotic self-deception, manipulativeness and denial. Paltrow makes Michelle's attractions for Leonard obvious without over-stating them and exudes an easy charm and casual recklessness that would be bound to enthrall the sensitive, sheltered Leonard.

She doesn't overplay Michelle's selfishness either. While it is clear she is using Leonard, it's equally clear that he is using her. The foundations of the manipulation on both sides grow out of a genuine human need for contact and intimacy - however misdirected - and Paltrow matches Phoenix in embodying a person who is sympathetic because of, as well as in spite of, personal shortcomings.

Vinessa Shaw gives Sandra a good-natured, sexy, earthiness that is clearly a little too easy and reassuring, on some levels, for Leonard. His attraction to her is palpable and understandable, as is his uncertainty in the face of the possibility represented in his mind by Michelle, that "there must be more to life" than being happy. Shaw delicately subtly embodies the promise of a life for Leonard that is both his refuge and his prison.

The smaller roles are wonderfully well-cast and acted. Rossellini and Moshonov reflect real parental concern and bewidlerment, while hinting at some of the familial roots of Leonard's conflicts without ever descending into stock characters or easy targets of "blame the parents" psychologizing. As Sandra's father, Bob Ari manages to be the soul of warmth and family values, but maintain a hint of a menacing edge that Leonard finds understandably off-putting.

Elias Koteas as Michelle's philandering boss Ronald Blatt, steals the scene in which he, Michelle and Leonard share a dinner out. In a few moments, he tells us a great deal about the world he and Michelle inhabit, and the distance between it and Leonard's parochial life in Brooklyn.

The production values are fine. The sound is clear, sets and costumes seems authentic and natural (especially the Kraditor's apartment with its family photo gallery, and Leonard's cramped, disorganized room).

The camera work is likewise low-key and unobtrusive. There are no visual gimmicks or flourishes, just workmanlike, intimate observation that lets the characters tell the story. The music subtly reinforces the action - sometimes to fairly powerful effect - without ever calling attention to itself.

Two Lovers is a fine piece of work which has inspired me to look at Gray's earlier films. I missed them the first time around, despite their fine reviews. Here, Gray has brought fine actors, at the peak of their powers together, given them a meaty but by no means melodramatic story with a well-crafted script, and made it possible for them to do their best.

The resulting film is a thought-provoking look at the existential crises of ordinary life, and the choices they entail, quietly but inexorably aggregating to determine the course and meaning of our lives. It is a film that thrusts the audience into the center of the questions it raises and leaves us wondering, about Leonard's life, and our own.

That's my take on it. What's yours?