"Two Lovers" is the kind of highbrow movie many actors would consider a great showcase: a small, personal film with a demanding central role opposite an Oscar-winning actress. Joaquin Phoenix, the star of the new drama, sees "Two Lovers" in a very different light -- his swan song.
Phoenix's retirement from acting -- which he insists is neither a joke nor a publicity stunt -- has transformed the film's Friday launch into a circus nearly as surreal as anything staged by Fellini or Cirque du Soleil.
"I didn't think it would get this attention," Phoenix says. "I didn't think anybody would care."
The star of "Walk the Line" and "Gladiator" announced last fall that he was quitting acting to pursue a career in music, saying that "Two Lovers" would be his final turn in front of movie cameras. News of the unusual declaration -- Phoenix is just 34 years old and considered one of the top acting talents of his generation -- is threatening to eclipse the film itself, seriously testing the long-standing adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.
"I have no idea if it helps or hurts," the film's writer-director, James Gray, said at the end of a recent day of publicity for the film, in which Phoenix was trailed by a documentary film crew under the direction of actor (and Phoenix's brother-in-law) Casey Affleck, who is chronicling Phoenix's career transformation. "But my instinct is it's pretty good for the film," Gray says. "It's a small movie, and it wouldn't have gotten a lot of press otherwise."
It's not just Phoenix's retirement (and, more notably, the media's coverage thereof) that is overshadowing the story of "Two Lovers," Gray's examination of the complicated emotional and romantic life of a middle-aged man struggling with mental illness.
At the same time, "Two Lovers" costar Gwyneth Paltrow is attracting a ton of attention too. But it's not for her increasingly rare film work or even her marriage to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Instead, the focus has been on the "Shakespeare in Love" actress' new self-help website ( www.goop.com), and not all of the coverage of her luxurious lifestyle tips has been very kind.
"While it's nice to get the attention and get the film's name out, it's a double-edged sword, because it's not reflective of the film," says Eamonn Bowles, whose Magnolia Pictures is releasing "Two Lovers" in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, while the film already is available through video-on-demand services. "The film is anything but a tabloid diversion. It's a soulful, serious, almost old-school story. And we don't want the tabloid fodder to overwhelm the film."
"Two Lovers," which premiered at last May's Cannes Film Festival, is hardly a lightweight romance: The film opens with Leonard (Phoenix) attempting to commit suicide. Leonard, who has moved back in with his parents following a canceled engagement, is soon entangled in two women's lives.
Michelle (Paltrow) is a Brooklyn neighbor who is having an affair with a married man, while Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is a family acquaintance who is a healthier choice for the emotionally unstable Leonard.
Gray says that he wrote his script with Phoenix (who was in Gray's "The Yards" and "We Own the Night") and Paltrow in mind, and was inspired by the Dostoevsky short story "White Nights," which has been turned into half a dozen other movies.
"I think he's fantastic in the movie," Gray says of Phoenix. "If it's his last movie, I think it would be really sad. He's a wonderfully talented guy, and he has a lot to give the world. But he said over and over again, 'I don't like doing this anymore. I'm tired.' He looked exhausted at the end of the movie. At the end of the process, I saw him quite beaten. I have never met anyone as serious as an artist as him, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks."
That includes the actor's appraisal of his own work. Asked if Phoenix thinks that "Two Lovers" would be a fitting final chapter for this cinematic career, he shrugs, saying that he hasn't watched it. "I don't see the movies I do," Phoenix says. "Why would I?"
Looking more like a hard-living rock star than a matinee idol, Phoenix conducted his interview with matted, disheveled hair, an unruly beard, tattered clothes and dark sunglasses. While some have dismissed his retirement as an Andy Kaufman-style prank, commenting endlessly about his legendary Las Vegas performance, where he lost his balance and toppled off the stage, Phoenix says his switch from multiplex to recording studio is dead serious, a path he began steering toward years ago. Indeed, Phoenix sang all of Johnny Cash's songs in "Walk the Line," for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.
"It's something that I have been doing for a while," Phoenix says, lighting up a cigarette and sipping a Snapple. "I don't want to film right now. . . . It's not satisfying."
Phoenix says he is in a recording studio every day, working to finish an album that he hopes will be completed in a few months. He says the music is hard to categorize and that, while it will include raps, the mix will be eclectic and unpredictable. "I want to do wild, out-there" stuff, he says.
Which also describes how the "Two Lovers" press day unfolded. Journalists interviewing Phoenix were asked if Affleck could film the sessions as part of his documentary, which made the proceedings feel more like "This Is Spinal Tap" performance art than a publicity tour, especially when Phoenix reenacted his Las Vegas stage stumble.
"It really started out innocently," Phoenix says of having Affleck shadow him. "I was in the studio, recording, and I wanted a document of that experience. I wish there was footage of Public Enemy making 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,' " he says of the seminal 1988 hip-hop album.
Phoenix says that as a young actor he would walk by movie sets, smell the acrid scent of colored gels smoking in front of hot stage lights and become intoxicated. "I want to get in there, I want to get in there," he says of how was drawn to acting. "But I haven't had that feeling in a while . . . and my mom always told me, 'Be true to your heart.' "
He says that while he has no idea whether he can succeed as well in music as he has in movies, he needs to do what he finds fulfilling. When it comes to acting, he says, "there are too many other elements that are a part of moviemaking that I just find unbearable." Phoenix doesn't spell them all out, but it's clear it became more of a job and less of a "mystifying" creative endeavor.
"I was excited by it," he says of performing in front of a camera. "And then it starts to become this thing."
What's also clearly changed is that the kind of movies Phoenix has been drawn to are not always films audiences care for. Although 2005's "Walk the Line" grossed more than $180 million worldwide, Phoenix's more recent movies have been far less popular, with 2007's "Reservation Road" barely grossing $100,000 domestically. "I just think audiences have become more selective," he says.
That is likely to be the case with "Two Lovers," and Phoenix knows it. As the actor was winding up his unusual day of interviews, he picked up a mounted copy of the film's poster only to discover that another poster was glued to the back, from November's hit "Four Christmases."
"This is how you make money," Phoenix says, looking at the "Four Christmases" poster before turning it around. "And this is how you don't."