Magnolia Pictures, 2009
By Julissa Trevino
The first few minutes of Two Lovers are completely silent as Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) hastily makes his way along a boardwalk on a cloudy day–and jumps off into the water. As he’s saved by a passerby, he seems lifeless and gets up without making eye contact with the people around him or saying, “Thank you.” Director James Gray makes Leonard a depressed, awkward and stiff character here, but there’s a duality to Leonard we don’t see right away. Something happens to him when he’s with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow)–he becomes casual, funny, cute and relaxed.
Watching Phoenix’s portrayal of Leonard enhances the conventional storyline of a love triangle and makes it all the more fascinating since he says this is his last film. Phoenix’s performance erases the memory of his bearded appearance on The Late Show in promoting this exact film. His gum chewing, big sunglasses and mumbling are completely different than his handsome, emotional and real character Leonard. His performance begs us to ask Phoenix: “Why would you ever quit acting?”
Paltrow’s rendering of Michelle as an (almost) irrational, passionate and vulnerable young woman trying to settle into a real relationship, too, engages us deeper into the film. There’s a scene with Michelle and Leonard on their apartment rooftop, when he tells her he loves her, which is quite indicative of their relationship. It’s a beautiful scene, but both characters become frustrated with one another and make it one of the sad parts of Two Lovers. But her flowing hair, gorgeous figure and bubbly personality make it tough for us to not like her.
Two Lovers parallels Mike Nichols’s film Closer–its mature characters and poignancy–in its genuineness. The strength of the film is perhaps just that. The film makes us forget that a similar story has been told and has us focus on the highs and lows of the characters–on their vulnerabilities and their experiences.
The story behind Two Lovers is nothing original or enlightening–essentially, it tells the story of real life relationship problems. But it’s told in a fresh way: It never becomes dull, dry or even too emotional–it is just the right amount of gritty. The Brooklyn backdrop, three very well-acted characters and an ultimately satisfying ending make for an engaging film.