Thursday, February 26, 2009

Love after slit wrists

If you're looking to spend an evening with a brilliant and entertaining conversationalist -- and why wouldn't you be? -- you could do much worse than an encounter with director James Gray ("We Own the Night," "The Yards," and "Little Odessa"). I've met Gray twice and found him to be quick-witted and smart, one of those people with a wide-ranging intelligence that seems at home with nearly any subject. Gray's also an amusing name-dropper and a gifted mimic who does eerily precise imitations of the actors with whom he's worked. A careful stylist and a genuine auteur -- he never has made a movie he didn't write or co-write -- Gray has a gift that seems to produce interesting movies without quite blossoming into greatness.

Like all of Gray's previous movies, "Two Lovers" takes place in New York City, but this story of unrealized romance might be softer than anything Gray previously has attempted.

No one can fault Gray for failing to attract talented actors to his projects. This time, Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow star in a story that focuses on Phoenix's Leonard Kraditor, a young man who's living with his parents after a recent suicide attempt. Leonard's parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) encourage him to socialize by introducing him to the daughter of friends, a pleasant young woman played by Vinessa Shaw. But Leonard, who hasn't quite recovered from the failed relationship that presumably triggered his depression, has other things in mind. He has his eye on a neighbor, the alluring but erratic Michelle Rausch (Paltrow).

Phoenix gives a deeply muted performance. His Leonard struggles to find his way out of the gloomy Brooklyn neighborhood where his parents reside. Although Michelle lives in Leonard's building, she represents a break with the family and neighborhood forces that weigh on him.

Escape routes seldom come easy, and Leonard's path toward Michelle is paved with difficulty. Among other things, she's seeing a married man (Elias Koteas), a successful lawyer who may not want to dump his wife. At one point, Michelle invites Leonard to accompany her to dinner with her lover. Poor Leonard is supposed to share his impressions of Michelle's lover, a scene in which Phoenix captures every ounce of Leonard's impacted pain.

"Two Lovers" is neither sentimental nor hard-hitting; it's a little movie about a pivotal moment in the life of a young man who seems doomed to spend his days under clouds of depression. As played by Phoenix, even Leonard's smile suggests an inescapable sense of defeat.

A NOTE ON PHOENIX: Yes, I've seen Phoenix's non-performance on the Letterman show. And, yes, I laughed at what must have ranked among the top 10 worst celebrity interviews ever. I also laughed at Ben Stiller's imitation of Phoenix on the recent Oscar broadcast. It's the context that makes us laugh, though: anti-celebrity behavior in obvious celebrity venues. But when I watched the Letterman interview for a second time with a friend, we both looked at each other quizzically as if to say, "Geez, Phoenix looks like a guy you might see mumbling to himself on a subway." Personally, I hope he's one Phoenix who rises from the ashes of ridicule and acts again. Nothing wrong with wanting to be a rapper -- Phoenix's stated aim -- but he's far too talented to stay away from movies for long.

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