Don’t bet on Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement from acting. If, however, his threat proves true, he leaves us one more resonant performance in Two Lovers, a smart and moving romantic drama. Entering a market seemingly cornered by Nicholas Sparks, writer-director James Gray breathes life into a compromised genre. Inspired by the Dostoyevsky novella White Nights, Gray and co-screenwriter Ric Menello don’t succumb to hoary clichés for conflict: no untimely deaths or fatal illnesses here to wring tears. Instead, we get the credible complication of a man who decides to keep his options open when, after a long romantic drought, he finds himself with two potential partners.
Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a thirty-something New Yorker who lives and works with his parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini). Recent suicide attempts—and the loss that caused them—hover over Leonard like dark clouds, but he perks up when he meets Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), an attractive young woman who takes an obvious interest in him. Spurred on by her parents and his, the two strike up a relationship, but in short order, Leonard meets Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), a flighty and stunning upstairs neighbor with a reckless way about her.
Since Michelle’s recklessness extends to devotedly dating a married man (Elias Koteas), Leonard becomes the pursuer rather than the pursued, and so he finds himself in a conundrum. With Sandra, he has a secure and comfortable relationship that could well last a lifetime, but Michelle—for all her issues—inspires a mad passion in him. “I want to take care of you,” says Sandra. “You’re like a brother to me now,” Michelle insists. Should Leonard love the one he’s with, or win the one he loves? Gray and Phoenix conspire to make the question torturously difficult to answer as Leonard leads Sandra down the garden path and obsesses over Michelle.
Leonard fits no easily digested archetype. Though, like Michelle, he is damaged goods, he can light up a room, his hopefulness emerging in goofy jokes or dances or raps. He loves his parents, but squirms to be free of them. Though he’s expected to work forever in the family dry cleaning business, he quietly uses photography as a creative outlet, one that Sandra lovingly encourages (in an oddly telling detail, his photos have no people in them). Phoenix routinely turns silent moments into scenes that speak volumes, as when Leonard cuts a sad-funny figure sitting under an abstract brass bust in a swanky restaurant while awaiting Michelle and her beau. When he fumblingly orders a Brandy Alexander, he confirms what we have suspected: he’s in way over his head.
Though the story is modern (and eternally relevant), there’s a ‘50s flavor to Two Lovers, in the Brando-esque stylings of Phoenix, and Gray’s photography of NYC apartments that seem right out of West Side Story. The director and star have a longstanding relationship spanning three films (including The Yards and We Own the Night), and they are clearly simpatico in their patient exploration of character. Two Lovers heartbreakingly explores our romantic delusions, and the tragedy of always wanting more than we can have.