Two Lovers

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Marking a positive change of pace, James Gray's third feature, “Two Lovers,” leaves the Russian-Jewish crime scene behind, but unfortunately, his film is still set in his favorite locale of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is depicted as an insular, suffocating milieu.

Add to it an old-fashioned romantic drama that revolves around a familiar triangle, and that at least two major roles are miscast, and you have a mediocre film that shows some improvement by Gray as helmer and scribe, but not sufficient enough to draw audiences.

World-premiering at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (in competition), where most of Gray's previous features had been shown, the movie received mixed to negative response.  Even though it stars Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, it's doubtful that “Two Lovers” would get a major theatrical release. (Indeed, the film is released by the indie company, Magnolia).

Joaquin Phoenix, Gray's frequent and favorite actor, gives a raw and vulnerable performance as Leonard, a charismatic but troubled young man who moves back into his childhood home following a recent heartbreak and a suicide attempt.

 

While recovering under the watchful eye of his parents (Italian Isabella Rossellini and Israeli actor Moni Moshonov), Leonard meets two women in quick succession: Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), a mysterious and beautiful neighbor who is exotic and out-of-place in Leonard's staid world, and Sandra Cohen, the lovely and caring daughter of a businessman who is buying out his family's dry-cleaning business.


Representing schematic types, the two femmes look and behave differently, and also stand for different sets of values.  The quintessential gentile (shiksa to use the Yiddish term), Michelle is blond, slender, dangerously alluring, and full of secrets.  In contrast, the Jewish Sandra is dark-haired, rounder, simpler, good-hearted, and sensitive.  Some of Woody Allen's early films, such as “Annie Hall,” also juxtaposed Jewish and Gentile women (first Diane Keaton, then Mia Farrow), but the culture collision was witty and humorous, whereas here it's literal and drab.

Leonard becomes deeply infatuated by Michelle, who at first seems poised to fall for him, until he finds out that she's having a self-destructive affair with a married man, Ronald Blatt (Eleas Koteas, miscast).  At a later point, Leonard gets to meet his competitor, though he fails to understand what attracts a bright, sexy woman like Michelle to a man like Ron.

Meanwhile, mounting pressure from his family pushes him towards committing to and marrying Sandra, who belongs to his race, religion, and culture. Leonard is forced to make an impossible decision between the impetuousness of desire and the comfort of love, or risk falling back into the darkness that nearly killed him.


At least one third of the film consists of telephone scenes between Leonard and Michelle, who are neighbors, and can see each other through their windows. Revealing voyeuristic tendencies, Leonard spies on Michelle, needing to know her comings and goings, and late at night, in time of need, she doesn't hesitate to call him, too, making all kinds of confessions.  Is she telling the truth  Is she in touch with her feelings

 

What begins as a new-noir melodrama, with family scenes in the background, gradually devolved into a routine romantic triangle, with Leonard torn between the two women.  Under pressure to end their enigmatic narrative on a satisfying note, Gray and co-writer Richard Menello make a faux pas by opting for a neat resolution.  The last scene, in which Leonard changes the recipient of the wedding ring he had bough for his true love is so abrupt and so preposterous that critics at the press screening I attended walked out of the show in a state of disbelief.

 

That said, the acting is decent, particularly by Paltrow and Phoenix, who each has a number of powerful scenes in which they rise above the mediocrity of the writing and the familiarity of the situations.

 

Credits

 

Written by JAMES GRAY, RICHARD MENELLO

Produced by JAMES GRAY, ANTHONY KATAGAS, DONNA GIGLIOTTI

Executive Producers MARC BUTAN, TODD WAGNER, MARK CUBAN

Executive Producer AGNES MENTRE

Co- Producers MIKE UPTON, COUPER SAMUELSON

Photography JOAQUIN BACA-ASAY

Editor JOHN AXELRAD

 

Cast

JOAQUIN PHOENIX–Leonard Kraditor

GWYNETH PALTROW-Michelle Rausch

VINESSA SHAW–Sandra Cohen

MONI MOSHONOV–Reuben Kraditor

ISABELLA ROSSELLINI–Ruth Kraditor

JOHN ORTIZ–Jose Cordero

BOB ARI–Michael Cohen

JULIE BUDD–Carol Cohen

ELIAS KOTEAS–Ronald Blatt