Judge Clark Douglas has two lovers he sees regularly: Mint Chocolate Chip and Rocky Road.
"I love you. I bought you something."
Is Two Lovers destined to be known simply as the film that came out when Joaquin Phoenix was spacing out on David Letterman, or is it one of 2009's overlooked gems? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line) is an emotionally troubled but harmless young man. He lives with his mother (Isabella Rossellini, The Saddest Music in the World) and father (Moni Moshonov, Besame Mucho), who are keeping a watchful eye on him. Leonard has a passion for photography, but spends most of his time working for his family's dry-cleaning business. The business is about to be purchased by Michael and Carol Cohen (Bob Ari and Julie Budd), and Mr. and Mrs. Kraditor are strongly encouraging Leonard to make a move on the Cohen's attractive daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, 3:10 to Yuma). Leonard resists initially simply because his parents are obviously attempting to be matchmakers, but when he actually meets Sandra he finds her to be a very likable person. She feels the same way about him.
Shortly thereafter, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), a woman who has just moved into his apartment complex. The two hit it off immediately and become almost instant friends. Leonard likes Sandra, but he has a strong crush on Michelle. He is disappointed to learn that Michelle is in a relationship with a married man (Elias Koteas, Crash), and uses his newfound status as Michelle's "brother figure" to try to break up the relationship. Leonard's relationships with Michelle and Sandra continue to bloom and grow at full speed. He allows himself to feel deep passions for both of them, never allowing himself to confront the fact that he will eventually have to make up his mind (something he should have done from the beginning, obviously). Will Leonard find happiness, or is this messy love triangle headed towards destruction?
Sometimes art and life cannot help but mimic each other in strange ways. When Two Lovers was released, the strange public behavior of actor Joaquin Phoenix brought an exceptional amount of coverage to a somewhat limited theatrical release. Part of the coverage came from the fact that Phoenix had proclaimed Two Lovers to be his final film as an actor, and part of it came from the bizarre interviews Phoenix was giving on the late-night talk shows in order to promote the film. Critics who reviewed the film could not help but bring up Phoenix's behavior; particularly considering that Leonard's slurred speech, rapping, and break-dancing seemed so very similar to the sort of behavior that was turning Phoenix into a popular tabloid subject. Such comparing, contrasting, and speculating is certainly superficially interesting, but I fear that it distracted far too much from the fact that Two Lovers is a tremendous drama that transcends the media baggage attached to it.
This is the third collaboration between Phoenix and director James Gray, who previously helmed the crime thrillers We Own the Night and The Yards. I felt somewhat ambiguous about those efforts, which were professionally crafted but left me somewhat cold emotionally. Now Gray has made a film fueled by deeply intense emotions. His skills for creating a convincing atmosphere remain fully intact, but almost every other aspect of his direction seems to move to a new level with Two Lovers. If "complicated romance" does not sound like the sort of thing that makes you sit up and pay attention, let it be known that this film somehow managed to be as gut-wrenching and nail-biting as any thriller I've seen recently. Perhaps it is all the more impressive that the tension does not come from something as easy as the threat of violence, but rather from the increasing risk of emotional damage that seems to be building around everyone involved in Leonard's life (including Leonard himself).
Looking at the basic developments of the plot, it may seem like Two Lovers is yet another story about a person who finds himself/herself trapped in a love triangle. However, in this particular case, Leonard is not sucked into a love triangle so much as he forcefully pushes himself into one. He goes through all the motions of carefully covering things up, telling lies, and re-arranging his schedule in order to lead two different lives. He does not seem to have a specific motivation, though. He leans one way and then the other with complete conviction. It's almost as if he is waiting to be sucked down a particular path. He tells the two women precisely what they want to hear at all times, regardless of the risk or consequences. I had no idea where the film was going to go, but the conclusion it reaches is painfully honest in a very unexpected and profound way. Here is a dark corner of love that is not often acknowledged, and the filmmakers have done a magnificent job of revealing it.
The cast here is nothing short of magnificent. I mentioned the way that Phoenix's peculiar behavior seems to be well-integrated into this character, but Leonard is nonetheless a thoroughly believable and compelling human being. It is a tribute to the writing and Phoenix's gifts as an actor that I rather quickly forgot about all the fracas surrounding the film and began to see only the character. To me, Vinessa Shaw is the more appealing of the two women here, projecting a warmth and openness that effectively sells the idea that Leonard would like her despite the unappealing circumstances surrounding their relationship. Even so, she is almost relegated to being a background player to a degree. Paltrow has more screen time, and perhaps is able to bring a bit more dimension to her character. She suggests a great deal of hidden pain, and allows her increasing turmoil to match Phoenix's increasing passion. Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas and Moni Moshonov only get a handful of scenes each, but all of them add significant value to little key moments.
The Blu-ray is very stellar if falling just short of being a knockout. A small amount of natural grain is left intact, only becoming a little distracting during a couple of the late-night exchanges between Phoenix and Paltrow. Blacks are nice and deep, a good thing considering that Gray has gone with a very gloomy, atmospheric visual look at times. During one of the featurettes, Gray said he thinks Two Lovers feels somewhat like a European film, an idea that I would definitely concur with. Skin tones are accurate and the level of detail is solid. Audio is quite nice here, as Gray provides us with an eclectic, well-chosen soundtrack that veers from classical elegance to nightclub pounding. Speaking of that, the nightclub sequence is just a bit too loud in contrast to the rest of the film, as I was forced to adjust the audio both when it appeared and after it concluded.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm slightly disappointed by the rather skimpy extras here. The only item of real substance is a commentary with Gray, which is thankfully a very good listen. Gray is a smart, amusing, nuanced guy who has a lot to say; he never loses steam as this track proceeds. The rest is more or less filler. You get a handful of somewhat dull deleted scenes, a lightweight EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette (7 minutes), an even skimpier HDNET making-of piece (4 minutes) and a photo gallery. Unsurprisingly, Phoenix himself is completely absent from these featurettes, aside from a very brief archival clip in which he says, "It's my last film."
The packaging includes a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting that Two Lovers is one of the, "Best Films of 2009." I'm inclined to agree. Whether or not this is Phoenix's last effort, this is superb cinema that allows its characters to follow their actions to their logical conclusions. The Blu-ray release doesn't bring anything particularly special to the party, but the solid transfer is probably worth spending a few extra bucks on if you're on the fence between this disc and the DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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