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Bearded and brain addled, Joaquin Phoenix has happily made his way through the press declaring that Two Lovers is his last movie. If true that’s a shame, since it’s a testament to just how good he really is. Forced to perform opposite the unbearable Gwyneth Paltrow and working from what is a fairly mediocre script, Phoenix still delivers a fantastic performance. Genuine and affecting, Two Lovers hinges almost entirely on how good Joaquin Phoenix is.
In it he’s cast as Leonard Kraditor, a guy trapped in one of those downward turns life sometimes leaves you in. When we meet Leonard he’s trying to kill himself. Yeah I know, what a hack way to start a movie. Don’t let that put you off, the script soon gets past it and makes room for something better. Leonard’s not some suicidal maniac. He’s an affable and complicated man who’s had better days and is now a little lonely and a little down on his luck. There’s a betrayal by a fiancé in his past, and it’s left him damaged, dispirited, hopeless. Still recovering, he lives with his parents, works for his Dad, and when he’s alone the world seems dead. He’s starting to feel anxious. He’s looking for that next step.
Then suddenly, as it so often does, life changes. Good things come in bunches and Leonard encounters two different women. The first is Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend. She’s a gentle, sensible, and reserved brunette. They share the same interests, she’s obviously interested in him, and we know instantly that they’ll be perfect together. Unfortunately Leonard has his head up his ass. He meets a blonde named Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s a disaster, a user. The kind of person who picks people up in her wake and leads them along, just so she’ll have a backup plan. Leonard, can’t get her out of his head and before long he finds himself pursuing both women. Michelle is the unattainable obsession, Sandra the down to earth backup plan. Maybe he and Michelle, equally awful people, really are perfect for each other.
Except while it’s easy to write off the annoying, and miscast Michelle for her bad behavior, it’s a lot harder to write of Leonard for buying into it. Credit for that goes to Phoenix with his open and sensitive performance. Maybe it’s because he himself is so damaged that his characters, even at their most brutish, have such a feeling of tangible fragility. Or maybe he’s just that good. Whatever the reason, you’ll find yourself identifying with Leonard. Watching him, we know what the right choice is but he’ll have to grow up to make it. Two Lovers is about waiting to see whether he’ll wake up in time. Director James Gray captures that maddening indecision, that middle ground between wild dreams and logical, comfortable security, perfectly. Though hampered by an unbearable Gwyneth and a so-so script, Two Lovers is well worth seeing.