Set during a gray Brighton Beach winter, “Two Lovers” begins with the solid shape of Joaquin Phoenix lumbering down a pier, a bag of dry cleaning slung over his shoulder. We don’t know who he is or anything about him, really, but for the heavy resignation and hopelessness that saturate his every step. There is no hesitation as he makes his way up and over the railing, jumping into the frigid bay below. But submerged deep in the icy waters, he discovers that he is not yet ready to die.
And so an ending becomes a beginning in director James Gray’s dark and unsettling contemplation of love. With Phoenix, in what he says will be his final role before launching a rap career, starring with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw as his two lovers, Gray uses the prism of longing and disappointment to examine the debris left behind by troubled romances.
At its core, this small, intimate film is of a type more likely found among European DVDs these days, Hollywood having shifted its object of desire to big romantic comedies whose characters, if they landed in Brooklyn’s working-class Brighton Beach at all, which is doubtful, would walk into a carefree summer day. Here, broken spirits as well as hearts are washed up like so much detritus along the shore.
Back on the pier, we began to discover Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor, at 30, still very much a lost boy. Like many in his generation who find adulthood and independence elusive, Leonard has moved back in with his parents after a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt, making him basically as much a failure at dying as he is at living. The family’s flat is claustrophobic, the walls, like the rest of his life, closing in on him. Someone describes the apartment as nostalgic, but it’s just another way of saying all used up.
Gray and co-writer Richard Menello fill Leonard’s life with small humiliations. He is a man but is still called to dinner like a boy. His parents -- Isabella Rossellini, worry etching her forehead and anxiety tightening her smile, and the wonderful Moni Moshonov, who carries fear and hope in every move -- pretend normality when they can.
Leonard’s days are spent helping out at his parents’ dry-cleaning store and snapping solitary photos of places uncluttered by people. Into his nights come Michelle, a beautiful but unavailable neighbor played by Paltrow, unhappily involved with a married man, and Sandra (Shaw), also beautiful, and very available, a barely masked blind date arranged by his parents. Soon Leonard is drifting between these two romantic poles -- the gentle, safe predictability of Sandra and the adrenaline-fueled, girl-of-his-dreams rush of Michelle. It’s not hard to figure out which one he wants.
Themes of loneliness, alienation and unrequited love are not new, but there is always that sense of the unexpected in Phoenix that keeps you curious. He tunnels into his characters, and here the physical and emotional awkwardness of youth -- the fractured speech, the mix of mischief and uncertainty in his eyes -- fuses with a decidedly adult body to create someone forever slightly off-center.
Phoenix is at his best with Paltrow’s bruised sparrow of a girl; he’s desperate to take care of her when he can’t even take care of himself. She is one of those actresses who understands the power of a look, and the one of regret and then resignation that overtakes her when Leonard professes his love is steeped in sadness. Her Michelle has been scraped raw by a life she is close to giving up on; listlessness inhabits her every move. It is also where the film sometimes falters, particularly in Leonard’s fumbling attempts to fill in his back story when we’ve long since read it between the lines.
There is an authenticity in the down-cycle world of Brighton Beach that comes effortlessly to Gray, who has set two other films here: his first, 1994’s “Little Odessa,” and 2007’s “We Own the Night.” It is a worn-out place awash in mist and somber grays, an unstinting decline of people and place everywhere that feels genuine.
Gray has said that the film was loosely based on the Dostoevsky short story “White Nights” and further inspired in part by Luchino Visconti’s 1957 film adaptation of it, and the themes of loving someone beyond your reach are certainly represented here, the notion of free will less so. In Sandra, Gray has given Leonard a chance at rewriting Dostoevsky’s ending, though the film leaves it to you to decide whether the ending he’s come up with is happy.
This is the third collaboration between Phoenix and Gray and is a shift from the crime-thriller dramas they’ve previously worked on together, “We Own the Night” and 2000’s well-received “The Yards.” After all the screeching car chases and operatic shootouts of the other films, it’s as if “Two Lovers” was made with the mute button on.