Two Lovers

Director    James Gray
Starring    Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini
Release    13 FEB (US) 27 MAR (UK)
4 stars


5th April 2009

Please please let the dark glasses Joaquin Phoenix has been wearing lately conceal a playful glint in his eye as he takes the world for a merry ride. The announcement that he intends to quit acting, followed by his bizarre appearance on Letterman and his disastrous "hip-hop" gigs, are either the result of a spectacular topple off the wagon, (in which case we are witnessing a serious meltdown), or this is all a very elaborate hoax. The strangest thing of all is that Phoenix's best friend and brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, has been filming the entire thing for a documentary depicting the transition from movie star to hip-hop star. Is this for real or is Phoenix deliberately submerging himself in a peculiar alter ego? And if so, what is the purpose of the ruse? Who knows. But if Joaquin Phoenix is serious about retiring from the silver screen, Two Lovers is one hell of a swan song.

Two Lovers is the third collaboration between Joaquin Phoenix and director James Gray. They previously teamed up for crime thrillers The Yards and We Own the Night but Two Lovers has a distinctly different tone. The lens zooms in on Leonard (Phoenix) and examines his life thoroughly while always retaining a respectful and non-judgemental distance. It captures everything from the mundane to the life-changing in the same way - Gray simply presents the raw ingredients to the audience and allows them to digest them at their own pace in their own way. It is refreshing to be treated like a grownup on entering the cinema.

Leonard moves back home with his parents after the life he planned with his fiancÚ came tumbling down leading to a suicide attempt. He is bipolar and suffers from crushing lows, but when the highs come along he is charismatic and vivacious. His mother and father (Rossellini and Moshonov) watch over him anxiously and set him up with the daughter of a business associate. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) dotes on Leonard and represents a reliable and cosy kind of love. At the same time Leonard meets his new neighbour Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is instantly fascinated by her. Michelle is mysterious, spontaneous, ethereal and unobtainable. She is in a volatile relationship with a married man and sees Leonard as a confidant rather than a lover. But Leonard's fascination turns to obsession and the emotional complexity of the situation simmers along growing more intense by the second.

The character's actions are often questionable, but because of the space and time they are given to develop, they are always understandable. At several points during the film you feel that the story could genuinely go a number of ways, at no point does it become predictable. It allows you to hope but a cloud of foreboding hovers simultaneously. How wonderful to see a movie about relationships where it does not become obvious within the first half hour how the scenario will play out and how it will inevitably end.

Isabella Rossellini shines (as ever) as the unfaltering matriarch of the piece. It is a shame she does not get more screen time. Shaw and Paltrow also give great performances. Shaw's character by no means plays second fiddle; the audience is drawn to her even when Leonard is not. Gwyneth Paltrow's flighty, reckless character is so far removed from her clean-living existence with uber-bore Chris Martin that it's good to know she's still got it in her.

Joaquin Phoenix is magnificent - every inch, every flinch, is Leonard. It is impossible to detect a hint of Johnny Cash or Commodus in this performance and hard to believe it is the same person. The vulnerability of Leonard perhaps gives us a glimpse of Phoenix himself, certainly more than we are currently seeing from behind the dark glasses. And just maybe that is why Leonard will be the last role Phoenix plays, perhaps Leonard came a little too close for comfort.

More:  Drama
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