Movie Review: Two Lovers
By Matthew Huntley
March 10, 2009

I know what you mean. I feel like we're being watched, too.

In Two Lovers, a troubled man named Leonard dates one woman but shows greater affection towards another. He has sex with both, but ironically, we never view his behavior as immoral or hurtful. Even though what he's doing is technically wrong, we do see him going out of his way to spare their feelings. The two women have never met, but they know the other exists. To the woman Leonard is dating, the other is just a friend; and to the woman Leonard really loves, the other is his girlfriend.

Given the rules of conventional Hollywood dramas, such a setup tells us Leonard will either be caught cheating or the two women will come face to face and a battle will ensue. But this isn't a conventional Hollywood drama. Writer-director James Gray and co-writer Ric Menello subtly sidestep the inevitable in an original, believable fashion, which is one of the film's lasting accomplishments.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the eccentric and likable Leonard, a 30-something man living with his parents in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood. Leonard works for his father (Moni Moshonov) at their family's dry cleaning business. He recently moved back in after attempting suicide when his ex-fiancee ended their relationship. At the beginning of the film, Leonard's mother (Isabella Rossellini) shows concern when her son enters their apartment soaking wet after jumping in the bay. She fears he tried to hurt himself again. We're not exactly sure.

Leonard's parents love him deeply, and his father wants to make sure his son has a secure future, which is why he's selling his business to the Cohen family, who want to keep Leonard involved in the company. The Cohens come over for dinner and introduce Leonard to their daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Later on, we learn this was their intention all along. Sandra shows a genuine interest in Leonard and falls in love with the idea of taking care of him. She sees him as a poor soul in need of help. The two connect and talk about things like photography, movies and their past relationships. They begin dating.

The next day, and mostly by chance, Leonard meets another young woman living in his parents' building. This is Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who, beneath her golden hair and pretty smile, may be more mentally anguished than Leonard. Michelle uses drugs and is dating a married man, although she's so self-involved, she doesn't know how to handle either situation. She asks Leonard to evaluate her lover (Elias Koteas) at dinner and give his opinion on whether the guy will ever leave his wife.

Sandra is someone who's safe - a noble companion whom Leonard could easily grow old with. Michelle is more exciting, but also more problematic. To Leonard, she's someone whom he can actually take care of, which is refreshing and challenging since it's been the other way around for so long.

Where Two Lovers eventually goes, I will not reveal, but it keeps us thoroughly involved in its story and authentic characters. Gray observes them with stark realism, which helps wash away our expectations of where we think the story is going. This is a Hollywood film, but the acting, plot and production are remarkably raw. There's nothing remotely "Hollywood" about the plot; it's all believable and nothing seems to happen out of contrivance. It's filled with nuances that will remind many viewers of their own lives. Some of the things I noticed were the Wishbone salad dressing Leonard's mom places on the table, and the slight layer of dust on all their family photos. These touches placed me deeper in the film's world.

After the screening, my girlfriend and I discussed why realism in movies is necessarily a cause for praise. It's probably because recreating the human condition is so hard. Anybody can just take a video camera and record their daily lives, but to tell an entertaining story with conflict and characters, while maintaining truth, seems harder. Gray and his cast prove they're up to the task and generate an uncommonly effective drama.

After this performance, it baffles me why Joaquin Phoenix would ever want to give up acting. He makes Leonard into one of the most complex and three-dimensional characters I've seen in a while. Leonard is someone whom you always feel is on the edge of going crazy or becoming suicidal, but on another level, he's reliable and shows good judgment and equanimity. It's a balanced performance and one that's completely convincing.

The other cast members, including the angelic Isabella Rossellini, who provides the film its most touching scene, downplay their stardom and become not just interesting characters, but real people. It helps that Gray and cinematographer JoaquĆ­n Baca-Asay photograph them in what appears to be location sets, none of which feel manufactured.

The ending is a curious one. Although I would have liked the film to risk going for something even more daring, I applaud the way Gray makes the conclusion less than obvious. Is it a happy ending? A sad one? We ask these questions not because we're confused, but because the film challenges us to think about it more. It almost felt Shakespearean the way certain events and symbols shape Leonard's final decision.

Two Lovers is a small picture that probably won't find a wide release, but it deserves to be seen. The story only appears simple, and the people in it are anything but.