Two Lovers

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in "Two Lovers"

Mike Nichols opens Closer, his 2004 adaptation of playwright Patrick Marber’s treatise on sex and psychological warfare, with dual shots of two beautiful strangers (Jude Law and Natalie Portman) walking down a crowded London street. They notice each other instantly, and we can’t help but do the same. They pop out above the crowd–largely, this is a choice of focus on the part of Nichols and DP Stephen Goldblatt, but with Law’s piercing eyes and movie star good looks and Portman’s girl-next-door charm and fluorescent red hair, how can we not? These people stand out almost by habit.

Leonard Kraditor, the broken protagonist of James Gray’s Two Lovers, is not such a person. As played by Joaquin Phoenix (who, interestingly enough, briefly delves into his new career as a rapper during a ride over to a club), he’s not without his good qualities. He’s guarded, but not without wit or a certain clumsy boyish charm. His face still carries baby fat, but you can tell he would look good if he lost a little weight. He dresses shabbily, but practically, and he cleans up well. All around, a wholly unremarkable man. Even under the watchful gaze of lenser Joaquin Baca-Asay, Leonard gets lost in the crowd — sometimes, particularly in crowd scenes, it takes a good ten seconds before you realize he’s even in frame.

When we meet Leonard, he is a man desperate for something he can control. Well into his thirties, Leonard has returned home to live with his parents and works at his father’s dry cleaners after failing to make his place in the world. He has failed as a photographer. He failed as a husband — he and his former fiancee (both Jewish) tested positive for Tay-Sachs, so they were split up, rather than endure the inevitable heartbreak that could come with the increasingly likely death of any child they had. And as we first see Leonard, he’s about to become (for the second time) what Frank Zappa would call a “Suicide Chump.” However, we can never take his attempts seriously — scars from his cut wrists are across veins rather than along (i.e., less likely to be fatal) and he attempts to drown himself by jumping from a bridge no more than two feet above the water (in fact, he changes his mind halfway through the attempt and resurfaces, posing as a drowning victim). Leonard makes another bold gesture in the film’s closing moments, but he ultimately confirms it as an empty threat.

And topping off a laundry list of emasculating circumstances, he’s about to be set up with another nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Leonard’s father’s new business partner. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Sandra — she’s quite pretty and appreciates Leonard’s eccentricities. But meeting a new girl at your parents’ house, where you’re currently living, and being goaded to show her your photographs in your messy childhood room is not exactly ideal.

This inciting incident spurs Two Lovers along as a fascinating and hypnotic tale about regaining one’s masculine identity. For Leonard, this also means shedding his Jewish identity (though he attends his girlfriend’s younger brother’s bar mitzvah, an allusion to Leonard’s own attempt to grapple with being a man), and taking up with a friendly, if wholly fucked up, shiksa named Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). Michelle is everything that Sandra isn’t; blonde, thin, and completely uninterested in Leonard in any romantic way. While Leonard courts Sandra in a very traditional fashion (movies, dinners, standard couples territory), his relationship with Michelle carries out in the manner of a couple of hormonal teenagers sneaking around after Mom and Dad have gone to sleep (and behind their own partners’ backs — Leonard is dating Sandra while he pines for Michelle, who is having an affair with a married man). The windows of their respective rooms are right across from each other (it’s no coincidence that Michelle’s window is on a floor above Leonard’s), so they yell to each other across the alleyway. They make late-night phone calls while looking at each other through the window. They sneak up to the roof to talk (and eventually have sex). And as the film draws to a close, they make the split decision to run off together to live in California.

The resolution of Leonard and Michelle’s tryst is completely expected, but there’s something tragic in these otherwise adolescent events because they’re occurring between two adults. What could be shrugged off as a mere crush in two teen characters is filled with all the same confusion, regret, and hurt and elevated ten-fold by two actors as skilled in their roles as Phoenix and Paltrow. It’s Leonard’s state of arrested development that makes his journey that much more urgent, and why an unspoken hurt seems to register when Sandra tells him “I want to take care of you” that forces Leonard to make a point of telling Michelle that he wants to protect her. While Leonard is constantly on the defensive, it’s only because Phoenix is so fully open as a performer, unafraid to let every insecurity and spiritual pock mark bleed through onto film. It’s this vulnerability that makes the final moments of Two Lovers (which I won’t spoil for you here, despite my bad track record with such things) so powerful in their heartbreak.