Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Lovers, directed by the aptly named James Gray, demands some patience. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a variant on her depressive in The Royal Tennenbaums and seems in places to channel the mannerisms of her Sylvia Plath from Sylvia too. Joaquin Phoenix, possessor of the loudest mumble in Hollywood history, is torn between submitting to the demands of his working-class parents, who want him to marry a perfectly normal and charming Vanessa Shaw, and loving crazy old Paltrow. Gray is very good at filling in the details of Phoenix's Brooklyn neighborhood and vague artistic ambitions. The performances by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshanov as the parents ring true; their tolerance of his restlessness only stretches as far as normalcy will allow. A couple of scenes are among the best I've seen this year: a dinner at a swanky Manhattan restaurant at which Elias Koteas clearly suspects an attraction between his lover Paltrow and Phoenix but is too secure to even hint at his unease; and a rooftop confrontation in which the two leads fight and cry, pinned down by a darkening sky and egged on by Gray's restless camera. Paltrow is always Paltrow, though: a spectator checking out her own performance with approval and well-timed empathy (had Shaw played her character the movie would have been a real triumph). It works this time because she doesn't seem quite real to Phoenix either. I admired Gray's commitment to proletarian family drama in The Yards (2000) and Little Odessa (1995) without responding; committed to a late nineteenth century brand of determinism, he snuffed the life out of his well-observed portraits. Maybe the schlocky heart of this material loosened him up (in one of the DVD bells and whistles, he offers perceptive remarks about the treatment of love in American movies). He's also more attuned to nuance than ever: Phoenix's attraction to Paltrow, it's clear, emboldens him enough to lead Shaw on. Although I squirmed in my seat a few times, this is a modest film that gets better when you reflect on it days later.

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