There was some speculation after Joaquin Phoenix's Late Night with David Letterman appearance that the street-person grooming and oddball behavior were part of a calculated publicity stunt to promote his latest movie, Two Lovers. But Phoenix needn't have bothered. Two Lovers is more evidence that Phoenix's work in films from Gladiator to Walk the Line stands on its own merits.
A contemporary Brando, Phoenix has played laser-honed villains and morally-challenged victims, but all of his work consistently explores the many possible dimensions to the human animal, with its mix of both good and bad. It would be a tragedy if this film were truly his last on a professed, possibly phony, road to a hip-hop musical career.
In many ways director James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night) and screenwriter Ric Menello's film is predicated more on the kind of choices women, rather than men, are asked to make between two men: one decent but unexciting and the other enticing but inappropriate.
Phoenix is the exceedingly vulnerable and heavily medicated Leonard Kraditor, living in his traditional, Jewish parents' apartment and still recovering from a past heartbreak. Leonard must make his own choice between the right woman and the not-right one.
How bad off is Leonard? When Two Lovers opens, Leonard is leaping into Sheepshead Bay in his bleak, gray Brighton Beach Brooklyn neighborhood. Leonard has been scarred by a seminal heartbreak evident in the framed portrait of a long-gone fiancée he still keeps by his bedside.
Deliverance from that seminal pain and from the mundane future of inheriting his father's dry-cleaning business comes with a glimpse into the apartment across the way. A troubled shiksa Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow) has taken up residence there, staged in her own apartment by her high-powered Manhattan lover (Elias Koteas), at a safe distance from his family. Sniffing out a fellow troubled soul garbed in the tantalizing shell of a blonde goddess, Leonard falls hard.
What might have been a fairly routine dilemma emerges: Will Leonard choose the drugged-up, dangerous WASP engaged in a dead-end affair with a married man? Or will he follow the straight and narrow and go for the good girl Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) with the corporate career and a Jewish father who wants to go into business with the Kraditors?
But Leonard has additional reasons for resisting the good girl for what she represents beyond the safe road: She is the bride selected for him by his Jewish parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and future in-laws, when his previous fiancée's parents derailed that relationship. Parents mucking around in affairs of the heart is clearly a bad precedent for Leonard.
What Michelle represents is a freedom from the trap Leonard's unhappy circumstance have set for him: the dry-cleaning dynasty being handed over to him and the woman who will provide and care for him with a mother's concern. Sleeping in his boyhood bedroom, Leonard is faced with the unappetizing prospect of stepping from his own mother's bosom into another's. Michelle symbolizes a different path: a wounded creature he can care for for a change. She offers him his first real opportunity to be a man.
A nicely mucky scenario, in which all manner of people, from parents to Leonard to the young women who stand to have their feelings crushed, moves into unexpected places. Two Lovers teases our expectations about how Leonard's plight will play out.
But the true beauty of Two Lovers is the tightly constructed plot and accurately conceived emotions of this engaging ensemble piece. There is a level of desperation to the film that persuasively conveys life for these ordinary people: economic desperation, a desperate desire for love, and the slow-to-reveal desperation of a mother to protect her son from further heartache.
Especially good in this regard is the relationship between the concerned, in-his-business mother and the secretive Leonard. Rossellini is restrained, pulling back from a take on Leonard's mother that could easily descend into smothering Jewish mother cliché to show her own heartbreak at watching her son scramble for love, and her fear that he will hurt himself again.
Paltrow also imbues her little-girl-lost with a pitch-perfect vacillation between tragedy and pathos. But the film is Phoenix's: another articulation of that mix of lust and vulnerability first glimpsed in his blue-collar teen seduced by a perfect suburban ice queen in Gus Van Sant's To Die For. Any suggestion that Phoenix is honestly considering retirement is made doubly tragic on the evidence of James Gray's mesmerizing family drama.