Friday, March 6, 2009


All of the movies written and directed by James Gray look, feel, and sound alike. And while his latest film, Two Lovers (****), which happens to be his richest and best yet, doesn't revolve around the sordid world of cops, crime, Russian-NY gangsters, and bloody shoot-outs (Little Odessa, The Yards, and We Own the Night are his other efforts), it's no less of an accomplishment. Gray is a 70's filmmaker at heart. His color palette consists of burnished browns, jet blacks, and gun-metal greys. His characters are ambiguous, morally conflicted, and quiet. Themes of family, loyalty, and violence run through all of his narratives, which jump from melodrama to genuine feeling with a peculiar grace. And this is what makes Two Lovers so excellent -- it has a timeless quality, its characters seem real without ever falling into cliché, and Gray's refusal to play anything safe imbues the film with a level of unpredictability that makes for great entertainment. And while Two Lovers may finally be too dour, possibly too portentous for some, the crafty decisions made by Gray and his co-scenarist Ric Menello should not go unnoticed, though they probably will, considering the ridiculously limited theatrical release that the film has received. I ended up watching the film via HD On Demand as it wasn't released in my home state.
The film is essentially a love story, but one shot through with heartache and dysfunction. Leonard Kraditor (the phenomenal Joaquin Phoenix) is depressed, miserable, and more than likely bi-polar. Still reeling from being dumped by his fiancée, he's moved back in with his loving parents (played wonderfully by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). They're a family of Jews from the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, and Gray gets all of the familial minutiae just right. Leonard's parents want nothing but the best for their boy and are deeply concerned about his well-being. Fearing that he might be regressing back to his addict-days, they arrange a date for Leonard with the charming Sandra Cohen (an extremely natural and appealing Vinessa Shaw), who happens to be the daughter of a business associate of Leonard's father. If sparks were to fly between the two of them, it might make the merging of Leonard's parent's dry-cleaning business with Sandra's parent's business run even smoother. But a monkey wrench is thrown into potential domestic bliss when Leonard meets the sexy and emotionally wounded Michelle, played with damaged-goods panache by Gwyneth Paltrow, in one of her best performances. It's the classic situation: seemingly good-hearted Jewish boy needs to pick between the sensible Jewish woman who is loved by his parents, or the blond shiksa goddess who Leonard craves in a seriously carnal way. Relationships are struck up with both of the women by Leonard, and as he twists and turns his way between the two of them, the audience twists and turns in their seat because of the realistically awkward situations that the characters find themselves in. Who will Leonard end up with? How will his parents react? And will Leonard ever be able to shake off the demons of his past?

Two Lovers is the sort of adult-minded movie that people complain never gets made any more. Well, movies like this do exist; the problem is that distributors don't have any faith in them. Unless a movie features talking dogs, caped crusaders, or horny high-school kids, the studios mostly seem afraid to release thought provoking dramas (unless Clint Eastwood's name is attached). The performances from Phoenix, Shaw, and Paltrow register as career highs for all of them. Leonard isn't necessarily a likable guy, and many of the decisions that he makes seem foolish or unwise, but when you look at the story from a slight remove, you realize that the decisions that he makes are probably the ones that would be made in the real world. Phoenix has a way with introverted, damaged souls, and it's clear that working with Gray for the third time has expanded their generous actor/director relationship even further. You like Leonard even though you probably shouldn’t. At least I did. Paltrow, who brought spunk and cutie-pie charm to last summer's Iron Man, shines in a way that she rarely has on the big screen in Two Lovers -- she's hot, she's trouble, and she knows it. And Shaw exudes an effortless charm and a natural quality that so few major actresses’ posses. I hope that her terrific but unshowy work in this film leads to bigger parts down the road. And as always with Gray, the film has a stylish but unfussy visual style. Long takes are employed, static cameras are set in place, and the actors are given all the room they need to carefully etch their layered characters. Films like Two Lovers are rare in that, typically, with a romantic drama, the audience has easy sentiment spoon-fed to them. Not here. Gray makes you work for a potential happy ending, and even when that ending comes, you can bet that there will be shades of uncertainty attached to it. Two Lovers may be small in scale, but it's huge in heart and feeling.

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