Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Movie review: 'Two Lovers' gets staggering performance from Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in Two Lovers.

By John Thomason

Bizarre. Stoned. Catatonic. Disoriented. Fishy. Odd. Painful. Amy Winehouse-esque.

Joaquin Phoenix’s recent appearance on David Letterman has been called all of these things and more in the thousands of Web hits since it went viral a couple of weeks ago. It’s all of those things, yes, but one word best describes Phoenix’s laconic, gum-chewing, somnambulistic grizzly man: brilliant.

Phoenix is a great actor – a claim few would dispute. He already proved his Method mettle when he learned how to play guitar to become Johnny Cash a few years back. His hijinks on Letterman were Method rigor too, just for a documentary instead of a fiction film (We assume the jig will be up when Casey Affleck’s Untitled Joaquin Phoenix Documentary reaches completion).

But just for fun, let’s take him at his word when he says Two Lovers, which hits South Florida screens Friday, is his final picture and that he’s retiring from acting to pursue (stifle your sniggers) a hip-hop career. If nothing else, his antics are a hell of a marketing tool for a movie that would otherwise slip through the cracks like so many great films released in the post-Oscar, pre-blockbuster dump time of late winter.

That, ultimately, may be the main impetus behind Phoenix’s “breakdown:” The more it is discussed, the more times Two Lovers is mentioned in turn. If it’s true, and we never see Phoenix rise onscreen again, Two Lovers would be a staggering conclusion to an intense career.

He plays Leonard Kraditor, an emotionally unstable bachelor whose opening suicide attempt is only the beginning of a volatile journey. Leonard is a tangle of fear, anxiety, depression and passive aggression – a volcano that could erupt at any time. In the wake of a mysterious broken engagement, he lives with his concerned parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) in Brooklyn, who wish he would just settle down with their friends’ daughter Sandra, a nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw).

But he’s more interested in the Trouble that lives in his neighboring building – an unwitting femme fatale whose own psychological baggage could jam the conveyer belt at JFK. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the kind of woman who gets high, cries and passes out in nightclub bathrooms, is stuck in a romantic quandary with an older married man (Elias Koteas, unctuous as ever). She settles immediately in the friend zone with Leonard, who naturally wants more.

When love is unrequited, narratives are only destined for disaster, but James Gray and Ric Menello’s screenplay takes its share of surprising twists. As the relationship between Leonard and Michelle develops, it takes on a naturalistic potency that echoes John Cassavetes, with preoccupations of obsession and voyeurism that recall Hitchcock.

This is no surprise coming from director Gray, a consummate dramatist whose style is so understated that it’s almost absent, while at the same being so meticulous that it was clearly storyboarded to perfection. Together or not, he frames his two lovers in muted settings that accentuate their isolation – on rooftops, the frame impeded by red brick pillars; across the painful distance of their apartment bedrooms; in inopportune cellphone calls received in secret.

Gray’s direction is brilliant without being self-consciously so. Note the way Leonard is framed in one communiqué between the frustrated lovers: He sneaks away from Sandra to respond to a troubled phone call from Michelle, his figure doubled through the thick glass partition of a fancy restaurant, a shot that subtly evokes his increasing emotional multiplicity.

But Gray isn’t the kind of director that will tell you what to think, which is why his work should be more revered than it is. Phoenix worked with Gray on The Yards and We Own the Night, neither of which matches Two Lovers, an apex for both director and muse. Let’s hope Phoenix doesn’t end his acting career prematurely – we’ve already seen his brother River tragically end his – but if Two Lovers really is his final act, you’ll be satisfied enough that no encore is necessary.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

TWO LOVERS. Director: James Gray; Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas; Studio: Magnolia; Venue: Sunrise Mizner Park, Boca Raton; opens Friday

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