Two Lovers

My, that's quite a harelip for a leading man.

But it may be what separates Joaquin Phoenix from the bland good looks and equally dull talents of his contemporaries (Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, etc.).

He wears pain better and looks to be no stranger to heartache or getting the short end of the stick. Those other smug pretty boys just don't understand that crippling sense of defeatism and loss. It's what made his Johnny Cash bearable in an otherwise unwatchable movie.

Which is why Phoenix's latest, Two Lovers, is his best performance to date.

It is a gray, bleak bit of melancholia that dances with old world values and modern day angst step by anxious step. This film is the cinema lover's antidote against the debilitating saccharine of the omnipresent rom-com.

Phoenix is Leonard Kraditor - a thirty-ish, unbalanced, bi-polar, suicidal distress case - who is recently coming off a jilting from his fiancé and a stay at the local booby hatch. He doesn't like taking his meds, living with his Jewish immigrant parents, working at their dry cleaners, or much of anything, really, except movies and taking photographs. He doesn't seem all too into those either. He is floundering and thoroughly depressed.

It is a testament to director James Gray and fellow screenwriter Ric Menello that Leonard never becomes vastly unlikable. Annoying sure. Idiotic and pathetic, yes. But never repulsive. It is also fascinating (and a great quirk) how most every other character in the film finds him rather engaging, not at all disturbed and altogether normal. This feature added so much to my frustration level toward Leonard and his behavior that it actually defined the film for me and enhanced my enjoyment no end. There is something so intrinsically satisfying about a filmmaker forcing you to struggle helplessly in the fight for the painfully obvious. The train light in the tunnel of crazy which only you can see approaching. I caught myself shaking my head and saying, "Oh, Leonard", over and over and over again. But everyone else just continued treating him as if he were Wally Cleaver with a few understandable idiosyncrasies.

Yet, I kept pulling for him. His losing personality was infectious.

The guy just needed to catch a few good breaks.

His ethical and spiritual quandary comes in the form of two women who are both vying for his attention and/or affection. One - equally troubled and selfish - is a needy, manipulative shiksa (Gwyneth Paltrow) he meets in his building. The other (Vinessa Shaw) - the sweet, nurturing Jewish daughter of his father's business friend - whom he is being pushed by the families to date and wed.

Guess which one he falls for?

The goy, of course.

Leonard's decision making capabilities are about on par with his joie de vivre. Non-existent.

The remainder of the film is what inevitable tragedy is all about. Yet Gray takes us on a few unmarked turns and into some uncharted territory, allowing us to make up our own minds on the verdicts for these people.

Two Lovers is that rarest of American films. A real look into the follies of the human heart and the selfish, self-destructive paths we choose in the ever elusive pursuit of true love and the coerced need for companionship. A bold film of mal d'amour in a time when most audiences are clinging to escapism (more vampires anyone?!) and refuse to stomach the glaring complexities that make us all human.


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