James Gray’s Two Lovers is a movie of contradictions: genuine yet implausible, modest yet grandiose, familiar yet utterly singular. A moody melodrama that takes place in present-day Brighton Beach — but could very well have played out decades ago — it has an intensity and earnestness that’s all too rare in movies these days. But to reach for emotion and be unembarrassed about it is not, by itself, enough to make a completely successful movie. Burdened by a script that totters between trite and true, Two Lovers can leave a viewer torn.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, introduced to us brooding under gray skies and then taking what seems like a suicidal plunge from a pier. The attempt is short-lived as he swims back up to the surface and is fished out by bystanders, a rescue for which he barely musters a thank you. Living with his parents in a musty apartment, Leonard has been convalescing from a broken engagement. Withdrawn and awkward, he nonetheless manages to become friends with two women: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the ostensibly homely daughter of his father’s business partner, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beautiful blonde who lives across the courtyard from his bedroom. Somehow — and within minutes of being in Leonard’s company you’ll understand my incredulity — Leonard ends up dating the former while befriending (and pining for) the latter.
On the surface a romantic drama of a man torn between two women, Two Lovers has more on its mind. Leonard is explicitly defined as “ethnic,” his identity underscored throughout the movie by cultural signifiers: a cramped Brooklyn apartment filled with books, parents who speak with Israeli accents, a scene at a bar mitzvah. With its keen sense of place and community, “Two Lovers” elevates its conventional plot into a metaphor for social exclusion and Jewish aspiration. Stuck with the dull, doting neighborhood girl, Leonard can’t help but yearn for his golden shiksa goddess, with Paltrow playing Michelle as a variation on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (gorgeous, flighty, and, yes, “fucked up”).
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