‘Two Lovers’ a first-rate study of one man’s heart | AspenTimes.com
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‘Two Lovers’ a first-rate study of one man’s heart

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Magnolia PicturesGwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix star in "Two Lovers."
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In the opening scene of “Two Lovers,” Leonard Kraditor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, makes a half-hearted suicide attempt by jumping fully clothed into the icy waters off Brooklyn. Rescued thanks to his own screams for help, he returns home where he shrugs off the incident to his parents. Leonard retreats into his dark room. He is a creepy and bothered 30-something living in the apartment of his parents, immigrants from Israel, and we sense that the nervous, unpredictable, outsider energy that Phoenix displayed in his much-YouTubed February appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” wasn’t a put-on. Beginning with the dumb, sex-struck high-schooler he played in “To Die For,” on through his spot-on portrayal of the tormented Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” there is a consistent thread of uncomfortable edges in the actor’s work.

Phoenix, though, is a first-rate actor because of what he layers beneath that itchy skin. “Two Lovers” thus plays right into his artistic strength. In director/co-writer James Gray’s story, Leonard is torn between two women: Sandra Cohen, the nice, entirely available Jewish daughter of his father’s business partner-to-be; and Michelle Rausch, a neighbor who has a drug problem and a married, shallow boyfriend. What could be a better set-up for Phoenix to reveal both his creepiness, and his warmth and intelligence?

With the suicide sequence, director Gray lures us into thinking “Two Lovers” is going to be a problem-child movie, the story of Leonard grappling with whatever it is that drove him off that bridge. But Leonard isn’t quite as troubled as the incident would lead us to think. The cry for help is a truer reflection of his state: confused and sad and in need of help, not hopelessly desperate.

Instead, “Two Lovers” is a chamber-sized study of Leonard’s heart ” the pull toward the stable Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw; and the opposite attraction to Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. The film goes easy on telling us which is the better path ” following your raging passion, or allowing your head to be your guide. But it frames the issue with style and intelligence, and allows for other elements ” Leonard’s relationship with his parents (Isabella Rosselini and Moni Moshonov), the cold and shadowy Brooklyn of late autumn, opera and nightclub culture ” to seep into the frame. It makes for a well-rounded examination of the internal drives that nudge us into romance and other sorts of connections.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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