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Movie review: Two Lovers -- 4 out of 5 stars
Two Lovers is a melancholy love triangle played in a melodramatic key — an age old tale of "She loves him, he loves another, but that other loves a married man."
The twists here are intentional and coincidental. The man torn between two women is bipolar. One lover represents a last shot at normal; the other a shared delusion.
And the coincidental twist is that this may be the last time anyone sees Joaquin Phoenix clean-shaven. A genuine flake who might be having one over on us, the actor announced his "retirement" from movies and his desire for a music career. Apparently, no one on the set of his "final film" said "Don't quit your day job" after his rap and dance scenes in the movie.
As he has so often, Phoenix plays damaged goods here. We meet Leonard just as he's jumping off a (very low) bridge on his way home in Brighton Beach. He's tried to take his own life. "Again," his mother ( Isabella Rossellini) adds, when he shows up at home soaking wet.
Leonard is medicated. He has his good days and his zoned-out ones. He works in the family dry cleaners, sometimes forgets to deliver the clothes in his charge and takes black-and-white landscape photos to express his isolation. Yet somehow this chap is catnip to the ladies.
There's Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful but needy daughter of the man Leonard's dad is selling the business to. The families are both Jewish and on good terms. So Sandra forgives the unreturned calls. She gets him, she thinks — "I just want to take care of you."
But Leonard wants to be the one doing the caretaking. He's smitten by the new neighbor, Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow as the very picture of shiksa appeal. He wants to rescue her from her drug use, her affair with a married lawyer.
"You're crazy," she giggles. "That's what they tell me!" he cackles back.
Co-writer/director James Gray, who worked with Phoenix on We Own the Night and The Yards, keeps his camera on Leonard, following his subtle mood swings, zeroing in on what makes him long for one woman and not-quite-dismiss the other. Leonard's choices are stark — the pretty but conventional woman his family approves of and the troubled neighbor he watches through her window and who could be his undoing.
Phoenix put his all into this portrait of a man barely keeping it together, someone wracked with guilt (he lies to everyone), distracted and rude with Sandra, worshipful and solicitous of Michelle. It's a nice acting job complemented by Paltrow at her high-class lowdown sexiest and Shaw's vulnerability.
Phoenix's performance overwhelms the slight story. And the current off-screen Phoenix melodrama fits a little too neatly into this piece of fiction to be ignored. Does Phoenix share some of Leonard's bipolar delusions? Will his "choices," once acting fame and fortune dry up, be the likes of Paltrow or that not-exactly-leftovers Shaw? Only in the movies, pal.