Writer/Director James Gray leaves the mob, cops, and crime behind (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) for some troubled romance in his latest film, “Two Lovers”. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard, the distraught son of Brighton Beach dry cleaners. He pines away in his parent’s (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) business after a suicide attempt. Worried for her son, his mother hopes the daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of a prospective business partner may be a good match for her boy. But she is unaware that Leonard has become infatuated with the new upstairs neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is having a torrid affair with a married businessman (Elias Koteas).
Two Lovers is a quaint drama, but ultimately fails under its premise. It was obvious to me within the first twenty minutes of the film which woman Leonard would eventually choose, or more to the point, settle for. Because there is really no choice, if we are to completely believe the set-up that James Gray has written. Leonard in this context is an afterthought for one character and the world to another. I can’t even understand why any of these women would ever find Leonard appealing, as he’s simply there, with no extraordinary or attractive attributes whatsoever. This is a common fault among male romance writers, who have incredible women falling for men who they wouldn’t normally touch with a ten foot pole.
Gray does do an excellent job bringing to the screen the Jewish world of Brooklyn’s Bright Beach. This is a slice of Americana that has been seen many times on film, but rarely as straightforward as in Two Lovers. The neighborhood is not a character here, but a setting that really depicts a certain, unchanged way of life. I think it is well shot here and not overused in the story, which could have taken place anywhere, but feels at home in this Jewish enclave.
Joaquin Phoenix, disregarding his stupid antics of late, is an excellent actor playing a boring character. I feel he does as good a job playing Leonard as can be expected. There just isn’t anything there that makes the character interesting. The two female leads have a little more substance, but I remain unconvinced that women this beautiful would ever spend a moment of their time with a lump like Leonard. James Gray makes a lateral move here with a technically good effort, but more a Lifetime movie of the week substance wise.