James Gray's Two Lovers was the movie Joaquin Phoenix was ostensibly promoting when he went on his tour of mini-insanity earlier this year, growing a mountain man beard, claiming he was quitting acting to become a hip-hop artist (in spite of his clear lack of talent in that arena), and making an increasingly bizarre series of public appearances, culminating in a mesmerizing train-wreck of an interview on Letterman ("Joaquin, I'm so sorry you couldn't be here tonight"). Blogs and entertainment insiders quarreled endlessly as to whether the actor had genuinely gone off the deep end or was engaging in some sort of elaborate, Andy Kaufman-style performance art "stunt"; I think the constant presence of his video camera-wielding brother-in-law Casey Affleck (and, frankly, the flame-out on Kaufman's favorite talk show) point to the latter, and clearly. But it was quite the hot topic for about ten minutes, and then everybody went back to their lives, and poor James Gray's movie got lost in the shuffle.
And it is a shame that more people saw the YouTube clip of that disastrous Late Show appearance than saw Two Lovers, because the film itself is an accomplished, low-key character study that's genuinely involving and beautifully acted. A clean-shaven and clear-headed Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, a slightly damaged and semi-suicidal young Brooklyn man (a passing mention is made of bipolar disorder) who has recently moved back home following a serious heartbreak. His parents (slyly played by Isabella Rosellini and Moni Moshonov) do their best to fix him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a business associate; she's pretty and stable and reliable, so of course he's got his eyes on someone else.
Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a new neighbor, blonde and willowy and mysterious; Leonard rides the Q train into Manhattan with her, and as he watches her step into a chauffeured Mercedes, he's clearly smitten. It's a fairly standard choice (uptown woman or around-the-way girl), but Gray's intelligent screenplay (written with Ric Menello) has more complexity than that--Michelle has problems of her own, and may very well be more emotionally damaged than Leonard is. She's in love with a married family man, there's a specter of past addictions floating around her, and, in general, she seems someone who needs to be taken care of. So does Leonard, which Sandra recognizes, even if Leonard doesn't.
Two Lovers' greatest accomplishment may very well be the subtle delicacy with which Gray and Menello handle the themes and implications of the storyline. Leonard is clearly living in a perpetual adolescence (sneaking out of his room, dodging responsibilities, pining for the girl next door); an intelligent, emotionally mature human being would recognize the psychological minefield that a partner like Michelle would present, but Leonard is not emotionally mature. He's drawn to the shiny object, to her flowing blonde hair and upscale attitudes and job in The City (Gray and cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay effectively convey the visual contrast between slick, glossy Manhattan and cluttered, busy Brooklyn). But while a lesser screenplay would have a secondary character (probably his mother) mouthpiece that in transparent dialogue, Gray lets us observe it and leaves it at that. The religious and social implications are also made clear but left unstated; Leonard and Sandra are clearly Jewish, but he's drawn to the blonde yuppie shiksa, and Gray wisely leaves that elephant sitting in the room.
Gwyneth Paltrow is an actress I've had a harder and harder time with in films, due (unfairly, I'll admit) to the number of loathsome interviews I've seen and read with her. But credit must be given: she is outstanding here. She shows you exactly how Leonard falls for her--she's charming, funny and charismatic in her early scenes, then shows depth and complexity as she burrows deeper. This free, fresh, and (frankly) sexy turn is the most spontaneous work she's done in years. Vinessa Shaw (who provided one of the few sharp jolts of genuine eroticism in Eyes Wide Shut) has the less showy role, but she handles it capably; among the able supporting cast, Rossellini's quietly concerned mother is the stand-out.
Gray's film is quiet and understated, and he finds just the right style for this personal, character-driven story: intimate and familiar, lived-in and delicate. There are moments that are barely spoken above a whisper, and even when the emotions are (literally) operatic, Gray keeps the tone in a minor key, and that's the smart play. And for all of his quirks and eccentricities (or publicity-hungry showboating, however you'd like to spin it), Phoenix is just plain superb. His fully-formed performance is an accumulation of small but deeply felt moments (the way he sits in his window, staring up, pining; the way he waits uncomfortably in a high-priced Manhattan restaurant; the simple, plaintive way he pleads "Don't go"); all ring true, all of them play. The closing scenes are a little pat; there's a sort of inevitability to them, which is good, but the use of some cheap symbolism is unfortunate. However, the final shots are wonderfully loaded, and Gray stops the action at exactly the correct challenging, thoughtful ending beat.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Two Lovers comes to us on a 25GB Blu-ray disc with a 1080p transfer utilizing the VC-1 codec. The results are somewhat mixed. The 2.40:1 image uses a muted color palate, with plenty of warm, autumnal colors; it's a little drab but nicely textured, with rich, inky blacks and full grays. That said, the grain is a touch heavier than expected--which mostly contributes to the lived-in, off-the-cuff aesthetic. But it is occasionally a point of minor distraction (particularly in some of the darker, night time scenes). Contrast is good and details are sharp, while skin tones are full and natural. Two Lovers certainly won't dazzle you with its video presentation, but the subdued image matches the style of the picture.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is similarly restrained; you don't expect much in the way of aural fireworks from this kind of chatty drama, though the dialogue is crisp and well-modulated and there are some serviceable environmental effects (subway sounds, a thunderstorm, chatter at a party scene, Rosselini clanging pots in the off-screen kitchen). Only two scenes really make full use of the soundstage: the sharp, startling opening, and a nightclub sequence that blasts a Moby song and crowd noise loud and clear from all channels. The sound design of those scenes is rich and textured; for the rest, it is less impressive but (again) appropriate to the subject matter.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The selection of bonus features is a little on the slim side; the best is a full-length Audio Commentary by director Gray. He's an engaging conversationalist, and his track is thoughtful, consistent, packed, and dryly funny (his Joaquin impression is priceless). It's an informative and smart commentary.
"Behind the Scenes" (7:04) is a typically slender EPK-style featurette, intercutting movie clips and interview snippets with Gray and the cast and crew. "HDNet: A Look at Two Lovers" (4:32) is more of the same; they're both so brief and cover so much of the same ground that the inclusion of both feels like a redundancy (they're both skimming the same surface without getting into anything of substance). More interesting are three Deleted Scenes (9:22), all with on-screen text by Gray explaining why they were excluded. The first two, while interesting (particularly one that shows Leonard at work, which the movie could have used more of) are brief and basically unnecessary, but the third, an extended scene of Leonard basically stalking Michelle on a date with her boyfriend, shows us a creepier side of the protagonist that Gray was smart to eliminate.
A viewer-controlled Photo Gallery and Trailers for four Magnolia Blu-ray releases round out the rather skimpy platter of extras.
Two Lovers is director Gray's most accomplished work to date (it's certainly more intriguing than its predecessor, the derivative We Own the Night); his handling of potentially melodramatic subject matter is smooth and professional, and he sustains a hushed tone and deliberate pace with aplomb. The slender bonus features are a minor strike against the overall package, but it's still well worth your time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.