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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Moni Moshonov, Isabella Rossellini, John Ortiz, Bob Ari, Julie Budd, Elias Koteas, Jay O. Sanders
Written by: James Gray, Ric Menello
Directed by: James Gray
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and brief drug use
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/19/2008

Two Lovers (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Dream and the Wake

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Here are two things I think I know about James Gray. One is that he's probably obsessed with American movies of the 1970s; he misses the days when movies used to be gritty and were actually about characters. The second is that he's currently one of the darlings of French movie critics and audiences. His movies are routinely hailed as masterpieces there, and get considerably more box office attention than they do here. (Gray's latest, Two Lovers, opened in France last November.) Here's another thing: Gray's earlier movies (The Yards, We Own the Night) seemed to me to overtly copy the gritty style of 1970s movies, but the more experience he gets, the more genuinely emotional his films grow. I've liked each of his films better than the last, and this one is now my favorite.

Gray's usual leading man Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard, a shuffling, shambling, half-shell of a man who has survived one or more suicide attempts. In a good mood, he likes to clown and do tricks for people. But in reality, he's a bit clumsy and never looks particularly good in his ill-fitting clothes. (It's a superbly detailed performance.) Leonard's father (Moni Moshonov) runs a dry-cleaning shop and is looking to merge with a more lucrative company. And it so happens that, in the merger, there's a pretty daughter, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) who is crazy about Leonard; all the parents heartily approve of the match. (The families are both Jewish.) Unfortunately, Leonard also meets the supremely screwed-up Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) a gorgeous, blonde goddess who exists slightly outside Leonard's world. (Is it me, or has Paltrow's hair never looked quite so good?) She's living in his Brooklyn building because that's the apartment that her married lover has rented for her, though she works in Manhattan in a law firm. (She takes down her ponytail and lets her blonde hair flow when she gets out of the subway.) She's also apparently a recovering drug user. Like many idiot males before him, Leonard becomes totally smitten with the wrong girl. He also lacks the courage to tell anyone around him what's going on or how he really feels -- not even his beautiful, crafty, intuitive mother (Isabella Rossellini) -- so we watch as he struggles through his days, trying to connect with both girls and trying to get what he wants without hurting anyone's feelings.

Two Lovers appears undecorated, unadorned and certainly un-poetic. It looks as if Gray and his actors merely stumbled into a Brooklyn neighborhood and started shooting. The dialogue, co-written here with Ric Menello, sounds grasped-at and fumbled, as if the actors were snatching their words from thin air rather than the written page. The general mood is, if not precisely gritty, then certainly a valiant attempt at grittiness. (It's stripped-down.) But more importantly, and along with the delicate, deep performances, we get a strong, genuine emotional connection with these folks, even though they're walking through the oldest story in the book. It's the clash between passion and responsibility, between dreams and life; it's consuming and depressing, but it's also a beautiful sadness.

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