If it is true that Joaquin Phoenix is done acting, his will be one of the most intriguing careers in recent memory. With a distinctively recognizable face and a penchant for playing brooding loners, his characters would improbably evoke both sympathy and disgust in us at the same time, perhaps never more so than as Leonard in Two Lovers. It’s not his best performance (and in all likelihood it’s probably not his last), but it should certainly be good enough to quiet his critics – at least those who weren’t convinced by his jaw-droppingly impressive appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman”.
Having wrapped himself up in an inescapable bind - and a familiar setup - by simultaneously dating two women (perfectly played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw), Leonard displays a surprising lack of discretion in his hedonistic behavior. He denies nothing and admits everything, or so it seems, until the situation eventually becomes untenable. It’s funny, more than once I thought, “This feels like a dark Woody Allen movie”; instead of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s Michelle Sandra Brighton Beach.
And as with Allen’s recent film, whether you identify with Leonard’s particular dilemma or not isn’t really as important as the acknowledgment that these are three rich, realistic, and compelling characters. To be honest, it’s not what I would have expected from James Gray, whose last two films starring Phoenix (The Yards and We Own the Night) were gritty crime dramas, saturated in blue light and punctuated with fist fights.
But Two Lovers has none of that edge. It would almost be sweet if it wasn’t so depressing, and for the first 90 minutes it’s surprisingly engrossing. Gray has a talent for making talky scenes between characters feel natural and engaging, and I’m starting to notice at least one memorably absorbing scene in each movie (the nightclub scene here, the car chase in We Own the Night).
If Gray continues to secure solid casts (Brad Pitt is rumored for his next film), and he continues to focus on the characters instead of the clever stories (on paper this one couldn't be more generic), there's reason to think his future work will be increasingly great. Also, it would appear that the third time was the charm for the collaboration between Phoenix and Gray – will there be a fourth?
P.S. What if Peter Sarsgaard is playing Joaquin Phoenix playing a creepy aspiring hip-hop artist? If anybody could pull it off, these two talented actors could.