So he's quitting acting to be a rap star now. (I smell a mockumentary in the works, but we'll see.) The bigger question is whether anyone will miss him. Decide for yourself by watching James Gray's downbeat drama "Two Lovers," possibly the actor's final film, in which Phoenix plays a tortured man who falls in love with two women, the volatile neighbor who doesn't want him (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the earnest family-backed one who does (Vinessa Shaw). (Friday) (Magnolia Pictures)
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Joaquin Phoenix has been having a rough time in the press lately. There was the mumbled charity-benefit announcement that he was retiring from acting. The David Letterman appearance where he was so silent and awkward that Letterman eventually quipped, "I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight." Ben Stiller's Academy Award routine, where he chewed gum, donned a matted wig and beard and wandered vaguely around the stage, was a clear imitation of Phoenix's recent appearances. In the space of a month, Phoenix has become an easy visual joke.
It's no wonder that the director and producers of his alleged last acting project are worried that the media attention will overshadow their film. "Two Lovers" is a small, delicate concoction of moods and moments, far quieter than all the current Phoenix-related hoopla. But his heartbreaking performance may incline audiences to think of him in a new light, or at least return to thinking of him in the old one.
Phoenix stars as Leonard, an emotionally ravaged Brighton Beach Jew who begins the film by attempting to drown himself in Sandy Hook Bay. Afterward, he shuffles away from his rescuers, soaked and sheepish, and shuts himself into his room as his father and mother (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) whisper fearfully outside. He's well into his 30s, but thanks to a broken engagement, a bout with depression and a previous suicide attempt, he's living like a teenager again, in his parents' home. They're the source of his job, his limited social life, his meals and even his romantic prospects, represented by prototypical "nice Jewish girl" Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's proposed business partner. Leonard's parents mean well, but their attempts to help and control him overshadow him as heavily as his failures.
Eventually, Leonard seems to see a way back to independent adulthood via bubbly blond neighbor Michelle ( Gwyneth Paltrow), whose self-absorption and easygoing chatter take the focus off him. When she doesn't immediately share his attraction, he tries settling for the sweet, undemanding Sandra, but he can't help repeatedly trying to force himself into Michelle's life, perhaps to escape his own.
Thanks in large part to Judd Apatow, the multiplexes are full of films about bumbling boy-men just starting to grow up, but "Two Lovers" reads as a gentle repudiation of the whole cinematic fad. Leonard's arrested development is complicated and nuanced, bound up in honest affection for his family as well as frustration, and he's full of minor surprises, particularly when he's called upon to enter Michelle's hyperkinetic world. Phoenix plays him beautifully, as a man who's limited but not stupid, struggling but not out of control. The film centers completely on his performance. By contrast, the two lovers of the title get short shrift. Co-writer and director James Gray showed a similarly keen sense of relationships, troubled souls and closely observed New York neighborhoods in his three previous films, "Little Odessa," "We Own The Night" and "The Yards." But he and writing partner Ric Menello make a serious sin of omission by not giving Michelle or Sandra the depth of personality to match Leonard's.But the film's quiet earnestness, its solid grounding in Leonard's family and its sense of impassioned loneliness carry it beyond the sometimes frustratingly one-sided plot. If Phoenix does carry through on his threat to leave acting behind for good, he could hardly ask for a more tastefully executed, sweetly melancholy swan song.
MPAA rating: R.
Running time: 1:50. Opening: Friday.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard); Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle); Vinessa Shaw (Sandra); Isabella Rossellini (Ruth).
Directed by: James Gray; written by Gray and Ric Menello; edited by John Axelrad; photographed by Joaquin Baca-Asay. A Magnolia Pictures release.