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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Two Lovers

When Two Lovers premiered at Cannes last May, I was looking forward to hearing the first reviews of the film; they were fairly middle of the road. I thought it had become par for the course for director James Gray to deliver a mediocre film after he wowed me with his original and bleak debut Little Odessa, only to go on to the bland The Yards and the trite We Own the Night. Still, I had some hope for Two Lovers because it eschewed the crime aspect of his previous pictures in favor of what made his first film work so well: complicated relationships between fascinating characters.

Gray and co-scripter Ric Menello have crafted a gritty, romantic film about class and gender that seems to follow a conventional arc — indeed, it is predictable in a way — but actually says a lot about what kind of choices we make. Sometimes those choices are influenced by love or madness (and oftentimes both) and the film explores the idea that love and mental illness might not be all the different from one another. It’s also a film that explores better than any other the idea that love and lust are quite different and the latter might be a far more powerful force than the former.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a bi-polar man in his early thirties who’s living at home with his Israeli parents and working at his father’s dry cleaning business. His mother (the superbIsabella Rossellini) is worried about Leonard, often looking underneath his door, trying to make sure that he’s not harming himself. Leonard likes to take pictures and he’s nursing a broken heart. Within days, two striking women enter his life.

First, there is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the withdrawn daughter of another dry cleaner who is trying to merge his business with Leonard’s father’s. Sandra seems fragile, easy-going and represents to Leonard the idea of settling down and not moving very far beyond Brighton Beach. Then he happens upon neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) who is wild, fun and invites Leonard out to go clubbing. Michelle is seeing a married man, however, while Sandra is unattached and interested in Leonard — but Leonard seems more intrigued by what Michelle represents.

The issue of Leonard’s mental illness is never addressed directly, but it’s something that is made evident by the differences in his persona depending on which girl he’s around. When he’s around Michelle, he’s almost manic, full of energy and generally more confident with himself; with Sandra, he’s quiet and introspective, shrugging his shoulders a lot. The two women, in fact, represent the condition that has left him scarred literally and figuratively as well as representing certain class distinctions that Leonard’s manic self cares about deeply.

For example, witness the scene in which Leonard forgoes a party at Sandra’s house in favor of going to a fancy dinner with Michelle and her rich boyfriend. To the rational audience member, it wouldn’t make sense for somebody to be the third wheel on a date rather than going on a date of your own, but clearly Leonard is getting a high out of ordering a Brandy Alexander in Manhattan instead of drinking a beer in Brooklyn. This scene also shows the depressed, masochistic side of Leonard because he is subjecting himself to seeing a woman he lusts after being pawed at by her older, married boyfriend (played with compassion by Elias Koteas).

Unlike Gray’s previous three films, this one doesn’t have a bad guy. Each character has a perspective that is both flawed and understandable. While we as an audience might see Sandra as a perfect partner for Leonard, it’s not really our place to say such a thing; who somebody is attracted to is entirely up to that person. So while Sandra might be beautiful and interesting and far more grounded than Michelle, we can also see what Leonard sees in Michelle. If Leonard is going to find happiness in his lust for Michelle, then he has to follow that dream — something his mother understands towards the end of the film.

The flip side of this, however, is that Leonard does indeed suffer from a mental disorder that prevents him from making normal, rational decisions. It seems that he only spends time with Sandra when Michelle is out of the picture, but when he does spend time with Sandra it seems as if he’s enjoying himself. It’s made clear by the film that he does care about Sandra, but Michelle is his last chance at escaping. What he’s escaping is up for debate; it could be his illness or the watchful eyes of his parents or the dry cleaning business. But like most people who suffer from bi-polar disorder, he is constantly feeling boxed in and spied on, wanting desperately to get away from everything even if he’d probably be better off with people who cared about him nearby.

If Joaquin Phoenix is truly retired from acting it would be a shame because Two Lovers is definitely the best work he’s done yet. He is able to convey everything about Leonard without any grandiose speeches and with a modicum of affectation. The way he speaks when he’s around Paltrow’s character is completely different from the way he talks to Shaw’s character. But it seems completely in keeping with his character. In a way, his bi-polar Marty is kind of what I was hoping for from Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler – a great performance in its own right – with a bit more nuance. Phoenix has long been an interesting actor, but here he doesn’t resort to any “actor” moments that have plagued some of his previous work. It is a rich, complete portrayal that is riddled with insecurity, longing and a soupcon of creepiness. Leonard is a flawed person, but Phoenix embraces those flaws and as a result makes us care more deeply about Leonard in the process because he seems real.

As the women he’s torn between, Paltrow and Shaw are both fantastic. Paltrow is playing against type here as a wild party girl who seems almost befuddled by the way she accidentally manipulates Leonard. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Paltrow actually become another person on screen and she does it by embracing her outward beauty and allowing herself to be vulnerable onscreen. The gorgeous Shaw wears little to no makeup in this film to better play the part of the dowdier lover, but it’s impossible to hide those cheekbones. But the soft way in which Shaw speaks and the slowed movements of her body imbue her character with something resembling her own kind of fatigued illness. Shaw’s character is not exactly boring, but she is the “safe” choice, the kind of woman who would give her boyfriend gloves because his hands are cold. She is practical and Shaw makes us believe it.

Despite the fact that it’s pretty clear where the film is going — in fact, we know how it’s going to end long before Leonard does – the journey there is riveting. This is not an easy film to get right because it involves a kind of emotional precision that is exceedingly hard to pull off. And it all starts with the script, which takes a lot of difficult twists and turns on its way to the conclusion, including a Bar Mitzvah and a trip to the hospital that complicates all of the relationships. Because at the heart of the film is the desire of its characters to have someone to care for; Sandra wants to take care of Leonard, who wants to take of Michelle who wants to take care of her boyfriend who wants to take care of his family. The film seems to be saying that lust is wanting to take care of somebody and love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for.

Always on the fringes of the film are Sandra’s father and Leonard’s parents, who are trying to navigate the waters of their children potentially getting together. Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother just wants to see her child happy, no matter how much his choices in life might hurt her. And that is the real unconditional love in the film; Leonard might have to juggle the two new women in his life, but it’s his mother who really cares only about his health and happiness.

With this film, James Gray has put himself back on the list of auteurs to watch. It seems as if he’s realized that Brighton Beach, rather than crime, seems to be his real muse. Life is complicated enough without introducing murder and corruption into the mix and with this film, Gray seems to have grasped that concept. They say you’re only as good as your last picture and with Two Lovers, James Gray has created an important, beautiful and wonderful motion picture.

Frenzy on the Podcast with John Gray

– Noah Forrest
February 3, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 25 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon