Director: James Gray | 110 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov, Julie Budd, David Cale, Nick Gillie, Carmen M. Herlihy, Samantha Ivers, Anne Joyce, Mari Koda, RJ Konner, Evan Lewis, Marion McCorry, John Ortiz, David Ross, Jeanine Serralles, Jose Edwin Soto, Uzimann, Mark Vincent, Craig Walker, Bianca Giancoli
James Gray, who made a name for himself with crime thrillers like ‘The Yards’ and ‘We Own The Night’, was inspired for this film by Gwyneth Paltrow. She had said to him, “We should do something together, but only if you make a movie without guns and a lot of guys yelling curse words.” Because he thinks she is one of the best actresses of her generation, he made ‘Two Lovers’, a romantic drama.
The story begins with a jump into the water. We see Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) walking across the pier with a suit from the dry cleaner in his hand (‘we love our customers’ it says) and moments later he is bobbing in the sea. Is he going to kill himself? He seems to float under water for a moment and then swims up again. “I fell in the water” he says to the bystanders. He comes home soaking wet to his worried but not so surprised parents.
The unstable Leonard, who lives with his parents again after his engagement, thrives when he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his not too stable new neighbor. She is in a relationship with her married boss. He also meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who honestly expresses her feelings for him. And then there are Leonards parents, who want to sell their dry cleaning to Sandra’s parents. Dating, going out, hurt feelings, boring dinners with parents: the story continues in the wintry Brighton Beach – a Jewish expatriate neighborhood in Brooklyn – from 1988.
Film is a magical thing. Sometimes nothing happens in a movie and yet you are moved. And sometimes it should be very intense and it just doesn’t work. There is beautiful music from Dana Sano, there are relationships, emotions, arguments, shouting and begging, but you don’t feel anything, except surprise at the behavior of the characters. Joaquin Phoenix tries his best to play a depressed, somewhat confused man. Something dragging, slow in his voice, he persistently persists. He is not entirely unbelievable, but it is not possible to get sympathy for him or to sympathize with him. In the scenes in which Vinessa Shaw appears, the story comes back to life. She plays the ‘normal girl’ Sandra in a credible way and with little means she manages to bring a little lightness and humor into the otherwise rather heavy story. Unfortunately, that cannot be said of Gwyneth Paltrow. She is beautiful to look at, but her emotions do not come across as sincere at any point and the hysterical moments become painfully unreal as a result. The script, in which these three adult thirty-somethings have to behave like naive and haunted adolescents, does not help either. Everything is too thick on top in the dialogues. The story is slow and there is no tension. But although there are all kinds of unbelievable elements in it (the depressed Leonard breaks-dancing on the dance floor, does that sometimes have something to do with Phoenix’s alleged new career as a rapper?) The biggest flaw is the predictability.
Fortunately, the cinematography is completely fine. Joaquin Baca-Asay beautifully portrays the story with subtle close-ups and wintry gray tones. And from the nominations for both a Golden Palm and a César, you can conclude that there are also many people who do not mind predictability and slowness and appreciate this romantic drama.