Ah, the love triangle. Man is single. Fortune has man meet a pretty girl. Soon thereafter, another pretty girl comes into his life and before you know it, emotions and devotion all become...rather confusing for our main character and the objects of his desire. It's an old tale that has been told time and time again, and so when faced with a film which tells such a story, its merits and quality all come down to how well the movie deals with the subject matter.
Such is the case with James Gray's most recent effort, Two Lovers, which hasn't been released with much fanfare this year, although movie buff circles have taken notice and shared both negative and positive reactions (such as this recent episode of Filmspotting). Two Lovers has Joaquin Pheonix as Leonard (beardless and not acting so crazy unfortunately), a mostly kind and benevolent Jewish man who suffers from bipolar symptoms. Having recently split up with his fiancée, he has moved back in with his parents in New York. His parents him love him dearly and even saved him a job at their dry cleaning business. As a friend of the family is soon to take over the business, Leanord is introduced to their daughter, the sweet and lovely Sandra (Vanessa Shaw). She has a 'cute girl who lives next door' air about her, and what's more, she is Jewish just like him. A match made in heaven it seems. The only problem is that Leanord soon finds himself falling for the actual girl next door (almost. One floor above in fact), Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a sexy and adventurous blonde who is currently in the midst of an affair with a married man. She and Leanord get along very well, only she sees him more as a brother than a potential lover, whereas poor Leonard is clearly smitten by her. He likes Sandra alright, but she is too plain. Michelle...that's more of a catch, more of an adventure.
This was my first James Gray film (I skipped 2007's We Own the Night) and I enjoyed it tremendously. The storytelling in the film is both lyrical and poetic. Instead of rehashing a dry, tired story, director Gray gives us a beautiful film, whose qualities can be found on several levels. At the forefront of the movie is course the actor Joaquin Pheonix, who delivers a surprisingly strong performance. Having seen him in some other films, I was aware that he could certainly act, but here he displays a wide range of emotions and talents. His character is funny, charming, sad, troubled and head over heels in love. Pheonix plays every note perfectly. He isn't an empty character at the center of a story. Rather, he is fully fledged and his performance is one of his best, without a doubt. Gwyneth Platrow, whom I believe doesn't receive the credit she deserves, is also very strong here. While her character isn't cursed with a psychological affliction like Pheonix's, hers is given a shade of complexity nonetheless as she is caught in a predicament. Hoping that her current lover will leave his family, she also has to deal with the increasingly obvious fact that Leonard is falling for her. Paltrow plays the loose party girl very well, and while her character might not be the classiest, the performance itself is proof that she has plenty of class as an actress with plenty of range. The one member of the top 3 players who, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick is the lovely Vanessa Shaw. It's not that she isn't good, because she is. The problem lies more with what the writing has given her to do as an actress. She shows up for not more than maybe 25 minutes of the entire running length, and while is clear that her character Sandra fancies Leonard, I was wishing the film would explore more of that half of the love triangle. As it stands, this feels more like a Pheonix/Paltrow film than it does a Pheonix/Paltrow+Shaw one. I think most of the scenes involving Leonard and Michelle are great, but in the end maybe I didn't feel the entire weight of a real love triangle. Still, Shaw and Pheonix are given one superb scene during which they make love for the first time while a CD of opera plays in the background. Great stuff.
Gray's film certainly deals with the emotional toil experienced by these characters (2 of them at least). At times they feel as light as a feather, at other moments as if they had just been gutted. The reason this works works so much is because it feels real. When we break up, when we get into an argument, when are torn between people, when we want to attract the full attention of the person we desire, there are so many passionate emotions that arise out of those situations and Two Lovers plays on that theme to the fullest extent. The soundrack, which features some opera and snappy jazz, is terrific and sets the tone very well for a great number of scenes. Even from a visual standpoint, while the film doesn't do anything extraordinary, the camera is often placed at the right angle, with terrific lighting and shadow to convey whatever narrative and emotional elements a scene needs to get across. And there were a countless number of scenes that were successful at either telling the story, bet it to explore the intricacies of the characters or to move the plot forward. The nightclub scene, the love makig session between Leonard and Sandra, the opening during which Leonard attempts to commit suicide by jumping in the river, the restaurant scene with Leonard, Michelle and her lover (played by none other than Elias Koteas), the climax, etc. Whether the tone of a given scene was that of melancholy, joy, frustration or sadness, it almost always fired on all cylinders. I could go on, but I'll keep this as short as possible.
Two Lovers takes a tired old tale and makes an emotionally charged and mature film out of it. From the directing to the acting, the film represents some of the best in what love stories have to offer. There is no fairy tale aspect to be found here at all. In fact, most of the film carries a darker, rather than a happier tone, but do not be mislead in believing that there is no love at stake here. While I still have yet to see a significant amount of 2009 pictures, Two Lovers is, thus far, at the top of my list.