March 3, 2009

300 Words About: Two Lovers

"Oh, alright, I'll write one of my rap songs about you, Gwyneth..."

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.


  1. I haven't seen this yet, but I hope to (it just opened here last week). I've never cared for any James Grays' movies, but for some reason I'm always drawn to them.

    He always picks actors I like watching: Tim Roth, Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg. Those are three of my favorite men.

  2. I know what you mean - there's always just something about his movies that makes them intriguing enough to see. In this case, for me, it was the pairing of Phoenix and Paltrow.

    Gray does get solid work from Mark Wahlberg as well, and I actually thought Eva Mendes was shockingly capable in We Own the Night. I think he really knows how to set up a scene and trust the actors to do their work naturally.

    Just needs to improve on the strength of the stories a bit.

  3. I guess we can say that most of the reviews have been more positive than your review on this, but I'm equally as inclined to believe you probably have this called dead-on. With the dearth of quality films out there in this traditionally sub-par time of the year, I should have had more resolve to check this out, but I have been slow on the draw so to speak. As always, your review is refreshingly candid.

  4. Thanks very much, but it's a tough call, Sam. There's plenty to like but some easy criticisms as well. I wouldn't say I was too harsh - a healthy B+ - but I'm not calling it one of the best of '09 or anything. Although it's interesting to consider - many of the best movies of 2008 came in the early spring - In Bruges in Feb, The Visitor and Y @ H in April, Priceless in May, etc.

    We'll see if this has legs like those, though...

  5. Hi there, I think you're site is awesome, so I'm passing on the Dardo award to you.

  6. Well thank you very much, Jizzka! It's an honor I received a couple weeks back from some other bloggers, but coming from a "new" reader/visitor, well that's encouraging.

    Thanks for commenting and I look forward to checking out your blog, Audientication.

  7. I really liked "Two Lovers" - I thought Gray took an almost cliched situation and made it fresh by creating characters that were nuanced and realistic. But I love your alternative title "Michelle Sandra Brighton Beach"!

  8. Thanks, Pat and M.

    Well said, Pat - and I could actually say the same about Gray's other films. He does surprisingly well at steering clear of cliches, even though I don't think he's quite a handle on emotional narratives.

  9. That's great! I guess it shows how much people like your blog for you to receive 2. Kudos!


  10. Or it just goes to show that people aren't reading nearly enough other blogs. Haha, just kidding - no more self deprecation. Truth be told, Getafilm is the best blog on the World Wide Web.

  11. Firstly, it's great to be back looking in at Getafilm.

    Secondly, this is a fine piece on a film I must admit I enjoyed significantly more than you. Gray is a fascinating, sometimes frustrating filmmaker whose focus on character over mere plot is intellectually arousing. I'm glad you liked the film, though.

    Did you see the video of Joaquin Phoenix's "fight"? I'm glad I just shaved my huge beard off so now I'm no longer called "Joaquin" by my friends. :)

  12. Haha, thanks, Alexander - glad you're back and I need to check out your review. "Intellectually arousing" is a great word for it, especially when using great actors like Phoenix...or you, as it were. I haven't seen the fight video but I did see his Vegas "performance" video. I think at this point the question is how long it's going to take to finish Affleck's documentary now that everyone's wise to the act. It's not like they can keep doing this for months and months.


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