“Two Lovers”
At the Michigan

Courtesy of 2929

3 out of 5 stars

“Two Lovers” opens with a shot of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”) walking down a boardwalk in slow motion before taking a suicidal plunge into an icy bay.

Since his fiancée left him, Leonard has struggled with depression. He lives with his parents who, in an attempt to help both their retirement plans and their son, introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, “3:10 to Yuma”), the daughter of a business partner who obviously likes him more than he likes her.

It’s not until he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, “The Good Night”), however, that he begins to start feeling emotions again. Unfortunately, Michelle is the mistress of a married lawyer and sees Leonard as a brotherly best friend. Leonard soon finds himself tangled between the unattainable girl he loves and the girl who loves him.

But “Two Lovers” does not come across as a typical romantic movie. While the film plays with the idea of love, it carries an unexpected emptiness. The characters never truly find what they are seeking. Despite Leonard’s constant meetings with Michelle, the fact that she can’t give him what he wants is obvious in the scenes of their rooftop meetings. His desperation echoes in the shots of the gray, wintry background.

The actors all deliver impressive performances, and Phoenix is cast in his best role since “Walk the Line.” He manages to portray his character’s high and low points without making the transition overdramatic or ridiculous. He moves between witty happiness and utter lifelessness as he struggles with the desire to break free from his family and the duties that come with them. The audience can see Leonard’s struggle as he waits for Michelle under the disapproving eyes in the black and white photos of his relatives.

Despite Phoenix’s new “career” in the hip-hop industry and antics on “The Late Show,” he gives a great showing. It’s not at all the sort of thing someone would expect from an actor-turned-rapper. And Paltrow and Shaw are solid as doomed, trapped girls in love with men who don’t love them back.

Leonard’s mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini, “Infamous”) is one of the most compelling characters in the film; she is overbearing but manages to attract empathy as she presses her ear to walls and peeks under doors to listen in on her son.

Director James Gray (“The Yards”) seeks to extricate the masked emotions of the characters through subtleties in the camera work. He incorporates a shot of a single eye turned to a blank wall as Leonard makes the choice that will seal his destiny. Shots like this are contrasted with disgustingly humorous images of the food at an awkward dinner party. Gray is able to insinuate that perhaps love does not truly exist at times in the film. When Sandra presents Leonard with a pair of gloves while they’re at a restaurant, Leonard simply nods to the waiter and asks for the check.

While the basic schematic elements of the plot are the same overused formula found in any other romantic movie, the romantic triangle works in “Two Lovers” to create something fresh and poignant.

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