Joaquin, You Have the Finesse of Nosferatu
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Vinessa Shaw, Gwyneth Paltrow
By Robert Patrick
Leonard Kraditor is suffering from a mental illness that director James Gray never really addresses. Leonard lives with his parents, shut in from the world, fingering through photographs and huddling over camera equipment. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the boyish Leonard, does so with supreme care, handling each facial tic, each idiosyncratic movement, each puttering remark with the buoyancy of a master conductor’s baton. But, because of Phoenix’s off screen catatonia, the media storm seems to be losing sight of Gray’s picture, Two Lovers, in which Joaquin claims to have put in his last acting performance – and what a picture it turned out to be.
Leonard’s personality, porous and volatile as it is, works its way into two women’s hearts with a kind of parasitic indiscrimination. When it suits him, Leonard is content with passive aggressive utterances, fluttering his tongue with the enthusiasm of a dying bird. Other times, when wanting a woman to swoon over him, he beguiles them with sweet nothings and innocent chirps of friendliness. Sandra and Michelle, the two women in question, fall into Leonard’s shaky hands, and suffer the type of frustrating, primal adoration that King Kong would’ve bestowed on Anne Darrow.
Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the Kraditor’s self-destructive next door neighbor, is the primary recipient of Leonard’s unhealthy admiration. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), on the other hand, assumes that she can help our troubled protagonist by showing patience and sincerity – something that Michelle isn’t able to do.
The marred relationship between these three characters, bobbing and weaving between empathetic and reproachful behavior, walks the type of tight razor that Woody Allen would admire. Director James Gray refuses to lionize these people and their decisions, giving a bleak, albeit accurate and moving, depiction of what it is to be infatuated with the idea of love. Gray understands the slippery undertones of obsession, and how close they come to being confused with romanticism. The story, dealing with such a delicate subject matter, could’ve been a mawkish, pretentious dissection of a man at loss, but it instead becomes a transcendent piece of art, giving the audience something to think about for days afterwards.
Despite my excitement over Gray’s film, Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance, the weakest link in the acting, barely generates the adequate momentum necessary to keep up with the impressive pace of Phoenix or Shaw. Paltrow delivers her lines with unparalleled stiffness, playing each scene with perfunctory interest. Fortunately for us Paltrow doesn’t sink the film, though it does take Phoenix and Shaw a great deal of energy to patch the hull every time she comes onscreen.
Because the screenplay doesn’t hurl a mallet over the audience’s heads with sensationalized melodrama, Two Lovers generally succeeds in all desired categories. And though it is unsettling to watch Leonard’s psyche get more unstable, almost like a wobbling top coming to an inevitable halt, there is something great and literary about this exercise in filmmaking. The terrific visual styling, with deep lead colors burrowing into the underbelly of Gray’s movie, build an overcast, gothic look over the steel shapes of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach.
By and large, Vinessa Shaw gives the most impressive performance in the film, even surpassing the fantastic Joaquin Phoenix. There is something so very moving about Shaw’s portrayal as the well meaning Sandra, that she practically moves the film on her own. What a fantastic, meteoric screen presence Shaw has in Gray’s inspired opus.
Overall, Two Lovers isn’t always entertaining in the most common, theatrical sense of the word, but it is constantly engaging. At its worst, the film has questionable pacing and Gwyneth Paltrow. At best, the film has fantastic visuals and everyone else in the cast. And, when it’s all over, Gray makes you ponder the harshest, most existential question of them all:
How often, and to what degree, is love absolute?
Two Lovers is now showing at Landmark Hillcrest.