I settled back to watch James Gray’s Two Lovers with more than a few misgivings. Even before Joaquin Phoenix’s journey into weirdness, he wasn’t a particularly compelling actor to me, and I was afraid his recent antics would prove distracting on top of that. Worse, this simply doesn’t sound like the sort of movie that would appeal to me—the story of a suicidally depressed young Jewish man, Leonard Kraditor (Phonenix), living in Brooklyn, who is being pushed into a relationship with a girl, Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw, 3:10 to Yuma), whose father will help the family dry-cleaning business. That Leonard then falls in love with an alarmingly unstable shiksa, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), who moves into the same apartment building, has the ring of something that Woody Allen might make palatable as neurotic comedy.
The first couple scenes appeared to confirm my worst fears of a drab, dreary drama that was going to be tough sledding just to get through. And then, somewhere along the way, something shifted in the film and I found myself being drawn into these characters and their fates. This wasn’t the movie I had expected at all. It was a little quirky, which helped, but it also had a sense of humanity—and that sense was combined with a degree of perception that was penetrating, yet never quite unkind. As a result, I went from foreboding and disinterest to genuinely liking the characters and wanting to see what happened to them.
Two Lovers is a difficult film to adequately describe, because it really hasn’t a lot more plot than what I outlined in the first paragraph. It’s what the film does within the confines of that basic situation that makes it something pretty special. It’s the way the characters behave that makes them real and identifiable—identifiable to the point of being nearly heartbreaking. It’s also—and this shouldn’t be sold short—the way the film is shot that adds to its potency. The locations are lit and shot in such a way that they’re at once very realistic and yet very romantic, and that’s truly the key to the overall film. It’s a film about striking a balance between the romantic and the real.
After the film gets past a somewhat awkward opening, the first thing you notice is what a nice person Sandra Cohen is. This isn’t some cardboard creation of a girl where you have to get past some huge impediment to like her. She isn’t just the girl being fobbed off on Leonard. She’s warm and likable, and from the outside, you can see that she really is a good match for him. Moreover, it’s hard not to believe that on some level Leonard himself knows this. Unfortunately, she isn’t what he wants or what he thinks he wants. It’s less that he seems to be rebelling against his parents’ choice, and more that he’s rebelling against a relationship that makes too much sense, because such a relationship just isn’t romantic. Nevertheless, he allows himself to be drawn into the relationship in a half-hearted fashion.
The problem arises when Michelle shows up. She’s the perfect embodiment of his idea of romance, and seemingly unaware of that. She quickly latches onto Leonard as a friend and confidante, completely oblivious to his actual attraction to her, thanks in no small part to being so wrapped up in a seemingly dead-end relationship with a married man, Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas). In fact, she uses Leonard as a sounding board to discuss her relationship with Ronald and even invites Leonard to go on a date with them—or at least the first part of the date, before the couple heads to the opera.
It’s significant—both as characterization for Michelle and Ronald and as a barometer of Leonard’s degree of besottedness—that the destination is “the opera,” a generic evocation of some vaguely more cultured world that they think they inhabit and that Leonard aspires to. Naturally enough, Leonard makes a stab at getting inside by running out and buying an opera sampler, so that he may become “worthy” of Michelle’s sophistication. It’s painfully real because we’ve all done something like it—and because it’s something that almost never works.
Where is all this going? Well, to find out requires seeing Two Lovers. You may more or less arrive at the film’s conclusion in advance of the film, but I very much doubt you’ll guess the specifics or the emotional punch of the film’s final scene. In other words, go see this film. It’s very much worth your while. Rated R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use.