Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is an attractive but troubled young man who moves back into his family home following a suicide attempt. While recovering under the watchful eye of his worried but ultimately uncomprehending parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Monoshov), he encounters two women in quick succession. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a mysterious, beautiful neighbour, who is out of place in the staid Brighton Beach neighbourhood. She too is deeply troubled over an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas). Meanwhile his parents try to set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the lovely, caring daughter of a businessman with whom they are planning to merge. A potential romance with Sandra is complicated, however, when Michelle enlists Leonard's help in dealing with her affair.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
If James Gray wanted to work with Gwyneth Paltrow - which he did - he'd have to come up with a project far removed from all the guns and swearing of films like his We Own the Night or The Yards, etc. Given the motivation, Gray has indeed come up with something different: and it's pretty darned good, especially as it's a genre he hasn't tried before. I'd call it the emotional thriller. Two Lovers is nuanced, intricate and sophisticated storytelling, as it follows the quite extraordinary emotional journey of Leonard Kraditor, Jewish son of a small business family in Brighton Beach - a dormitory suburb of New York far removed from Manhattan, at least in panache terms.
Leonard's broken heart has scarred his whole being, as we meet him in suicidal mode. The film's opening sequence signals that we are not walking down a familiar track and soon shows us why. Joaquin Phoenix creates an insecure yet strangely compelling figure in Leonard, who is at something of a loss after his break-up - a backstory which has more than the usual layers. His internal workings are conveyed with the least mannerisms and the most honesty; it's a wonderful performance.
Leonard's angels of fate deliver him to first Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the new neighbour whose apartment is being paid by her married lover (Elias Koteas), then Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the lovely daughter of a business couple engaged in merger talks with his parents - over a low-rent dry cleaning business. Hardly Manhattan stuff, whereas Michelle works at a legal firm uptown, where her lover is a partner.
The three worlds never actually collide, in what is a deft piece of scriptwriting; instead they oscillate and orbit each other, with Leonard orbiting in two directions - which gives the film its dramatic impetus and interest. Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov are terrific as his caring parents, not ever privy to Leonard's latest romantic entanglement, as they, too, live in orbit around him.
Gwyneth Paltrow is outstanding as the vulnerable Michelle, drawn to Leonard for his simple honesty and openness; the same attributes attract Sandra, who is happily surprised when Leonard seduces her. What she doesn't know is that he's on a bit of a rebound - from his crush on Michelle that appears hopeless. The complications begin to build and the emotional cost escalates. But as the story slowly moves towards its conclusion, we are taken to unexpected destinations in all their lives.
James Gray can be proud of his cinematic expansion into this genre, as he leads us on a journey full of sensitive and truthful moments and avoids the predictable and the false.
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TWO LOVERS (M)
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov, Elias Koteas, Bob Ari, Julie Budd
PRODUCER: Donna Gigliotti, James Gray, Anthony Katagas
DIRECTOR: James Gray
SCRIPT: James Gray, Ric Menello
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Joaquín Baca-Asay
EDITOR: John Axelrad
MUSIC: Not credited
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Happy Massee
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 4, 2009