Title: Two Lovers
Genre: Drama, Romance
Playtime: 1h 50min
Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ric Menello
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
Two Lovers is a notetaker’s nightmare. My practice is to jot down moments that jump out at me: scenes, details, lines of dialogue, distinctive flashes that will help me rewatch the film in my head when I sit down to write. By the end of James Gray’s brilliant fourth feature, I had filled five pages of my notebook — a record. Two Lovers is so rich, so fully realized that it inspires the same sort of awe as one of Henry Selick’s stop-motion-animated wonders.
Two years ago, I wrote about Gray’s We Own the Night: “What struck me first and hardest about [the film] is how populated it feels. There is often a sense, even in very good films, that everyone aside from two or three characters might as well have been drawn in during post, since they’re there mostly to take up physical space on the screen. Not so here. Here, the sets — often crowded places like clubs and soirees — teem with life, with people who seem like they could walk out of the frame and continue to exist. It’s a remarkable thing, to step not only into a story but into a world.” I could say the same about Two Lovers, which recreates this experience but replaces the rather trite cops-and-mobsters plot with a meditation on romance and yearning. James Gray is clearly one of the most important young(ish) filmmakers in America.
Gray has seemingly formed a partnership of sorts with Joaquin Phoenix, whose combination of sincerity and intensity is an uncanny match for Gray’s own sensibilities. Here, Phoenix takes on what might be the most complicated role of his career, playing a character we only slowly come to understand over the film’s 110 minutes. At heart, Two Lovers is a character study of Phoenix’s Leonard, whom we see as a case of arrested adolescence at the beginning of the film, and as a doomed romantic at the end. The story is simple, pulling Leonard between his intense passion for one woman (Gwyneth Paltrow) who’s very much taken, and his affection for another (Vanessa Shaw), who practically prostrates herself before him. But Leonard, who operates in the shadow of a past offscreen tragedy we only gradually come to understand, is anything but simple.
The film is so finely observed that it is breathtaking. Perfectly ordinary occurrences — a man ordering a drink at a restaurant; a man introducing a woman to his father — somehow become interesting in themselves. (The latter, in particular, is a thing of beauty; I can’t really do justice to the off-kilter but perfectly believable moment in words, but you’ll know what I mean when you see it.) Just the shit-eating grin on Phoenix’s face when Paltrow’s Michelle calls him “creative” practically makes Two Lovers a great film all by itself.
Gray is as careful with his locations as with his characters. Brighton Beach, where Leonard lives with his immigrant parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini, the latter appearing elderly on screen for the first time), looks bustling, alive, lived-in, a combination of camerawork, sound design, and painstaking effort planning shots and blocking extras. At one point, in a deliberate contrast, the action shifts to Manhattan, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Manhattan this gleaming and elegant.
Two Lovers is a little bit tricky in the third act, hiding a grim ending behind what might, if the viewer’s not careful, be mistaken for a happy one. And of course the whole movie is “tricky” in the narrow sense that it doesn’t spoonfeed exposition and key character details: you have to pay attention. Aside from that, though, Two Lovers is, thematically and narratively, pretty straightforward (if a bit stylized in the execution). Its remarkable richness comes from individual moments: sometimes funny, sometimes weird, sometimes heartrendingly real. Gray is young yet, but — to indulge in wishful hyperbole for a moment — he’s starting to look like a love child of Altman and Scorsese.