Saturday, March 21, 2009

Shades of Gray: Two Lovers

The main character in Two Lovers, an only child named Leonard, lives at home with his parents in a messy room. Leonard’s mother lectures him about leaving wet towels on the floor and tries to keep an eye on her son by getting on her hands and knees and peering through the crack underneath his door. When company comes over, the parents stay at the dinner table and talk while the visiting daughter, Sandra, joins Leonard in his room, sitting on his bed and looking at pictures. Leonard is awkward. Sandra likes that. She has a crush on Leonard that he returns on instinct. But Leonard also has eyes for a cute blonde he’s just met named Michelle who lives in his family’s apartment building, across the courtyard. At night Leonard sits in the darkness of his room and looks toward Michelle’s window, hoping to see her undressed. If this makes the love triangle at the center of Two Lovers sound childish, that’s because it can be. But James Gray’s latest picture is also an intelligent and mature drama, and the balance of these seemingly mutually exclusive moods is what makes the film so interesting, and so genuine.

Two Lovers reveals that there’s nothing necessarily grown-up about attraction. Leonard, played by a muddy-mouthed Joaquin Phoenix, is something of a modern Terry Malloy. He isn’t stupid, just simple. He isn’t shy, just solitary. He isn’t lost, just aimless. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder, or depression, and maybe more. He’s locked in a state of arrested development that he’s either too unable or too uninterested to outgrow. It is said that Leonard has been living back at home for just a few months, and that’s believable, and yet it remains possible that he’s been there on and off for years, maybe all his life. Sandra, played with charm by Vanessa Shaw, is drawn to Leonard’s vulnerability – a human quality that isn’t easily faked. Sandra is pretty, and we imagine that there are lots of men who desire her, but she wants someone who needs her. That’s Leonard. Trouble is, Leonard is convinced that he is needed by Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is delicate, dangerous and just the kind of shiksa that would make his mother nervous.

The above details are things we learn over time, and often we’re just guessing. Gray co-wrote the screenplay with Ric Menello, and his film leaves considerable room for interpretation. That’s the whole idea. Two Lovers routinely plays with our expectations, sometimes satisfying them, sometimes defying them, sometimes leaving us stranded in between. It’s an apt approach for this material as it reflects the uncertainty of the characters themselves; they are reading one another for clues, and we are reading them. Consequently, not a single character satisfies our first impressions – not even the earnest Sandra, whose grounded affection for the troubled Leonard seems too good to be true, until over time Sandra proves to be just as good and just as true as she appears. Imagine that. Meanwhile, Leonard turns out to be more vibrant than his suicidal introduction would suggest. Michelle is more troubled and less secure than the confident woman who Leonard finds in the hallway. Leonard’s mother, played to perfection by Isabella Rossellini, proves to be surprisingly trusting, in her own way. And Michelle’s married lover (Elias Koteas) might be an upstanding gentleman after all. Or maybe not.

These characters can’t be bottled, and Gray doesn’t begin to try. Two Lovers is less a character examination than a character meditation. Its scenes are allowed breathe, its characters are allowed live. There’s no rush to get anywhere, because there’s nowhere more interesting to go. Gray’s film lives in the moment, letting the moment speak for itself. The characters are neither exalted nor reviled, they just are. Gray isn’t playing games with the audience. Instead his story reflects life by devolving as often as it evolves. By the end of the film there’s no question that Leonard has been shaped by his experiences, but underneath it all he’s remained the same person all along. It’s to the film’s credit that we can imagine either Sandra or Michelle being the right (or wrong) woman for Leonard. Two Lovers suggests that the bond of love has less to do with what we see in others than with what we allow others to see in us.

Two Lovers is one of too many movies to be set in and around New York (Brooklyn, specifically), but it’s one of the few that truly inhabits the place. The sets feel lived-in, particularly Leonard’s home, with its hallway full of old family pictures. When Michelle enters the place for the first time and says that it smells of moth balls, you might find yourself nodding in agreement, as if we can smell it too. Leonard’s room, meanwhile, is disheveled in the kind of way that suggests he’s never quite moved back in or that he never really left. Leonard says he’s been there just for a few months, just like he says his previous girlfriend left him a few years ago over health concerns that rendered them unable to have children. And these stories might be true. Or maybe instead of giving us Leonard’s backstory, Gray’s film is giving us a window into Leonard’s delusions. It’s somewhat fitting actually that Phoenix’s bearded, rambling promotional tour for this film has Americans wondering whether he’s lost himself to drugs or is just experimenting with some kind of performance art. In Two Lovers, things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

The one thing that’s inarguable here is the quality of the acting from Phoenix to Moni Moshonov, who plays Leonard’s father. Shaw is enchanting as Sandra. Paltrow is understatedly fantastic as Michelle. And Phoenix turns in arguably the best performance of his career, in what might be the final performance of his career, should he hold true to his recent retirement announcement. (Let’s hope not.) The characters these actors create are forthright and naked and yet elusive and mysterious. They are as interesting at the end of the film as they are at the beginning. Yes, these characters make poor decisions. They exhibit desperation. They say the wrong things. They lie to the people who love them. They lie to themselves. What’s more real than that? Two Lovers is a film not to be taken at face value. That’s precisely what makes it honest.


Richard Bellamy said...

I sometimes get impatient with films that are merely character studies - albeit finely etched character studies presented by excellent performances. But the image you post at the top of your review intrigues me. It is carefully lighted and composed. Your review does a lot to intrigue me and draw me to that film, but that image helps a lot.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

I'm glad you wrote on this film. I saw it last week, but couldn't find the words in my head to write about it.

I like that you mention Leonard's room, and his parents lived-in apartment. I find it very interesting that in all of James Gray's films (this one, I think, is his best... I haven't been too hot on the previous ones) there is a similarily set-up apartment that almost always seems to look the same. I gather from this that Gray makes very personal films and references very personal things in those films.

I totally agree with you on Phoenix. He was already one of my favorite modern actors, but I think he is just lights out in Two Lovers. Watching him in the room with Vinessa Shaw, the first time they have a moment together (in his room, showing her photos), is a great example of his skills.

But my favorite scene might be one you referenced earlier. The one where he calls Michelle, and stares at out his window, crouched down as he talks to her. We see his mom's feet at the door, and he gets apprehensive like a schoolboy. That scene tells alot about the dynamic in the house and the emotional make-up of Leonard.

Daniel said...

Great review, Jason. I especially like this line: "Two Lovers suggests that the bond of love has less to do with what we see in others than with what we allow others to see in us."

I also loved Phoenix, and this movie has almost made me appreciate We Own the NIght more than I originally did. Gray has, I think, an underrated talent at pulling really solid performances from his actors. I even went so far as to claim that Eva Mendes was better than Robert Duvall in that movie. Maybe that's a little far, but the point is he really understands the importance of character. He doesn't bring in people and places that aren't immediately necessary to the story, just like in real life.

I look forward to his next movie, if it is indeed The Lost City of Z, which is based on a book based on a 2005 New Yorker article that I read way back then and cut it out because it was so fascinating. This would be Gray's first movie set outside of Brighton Beach, too, but it's pretty clear he knows how to make things atmospheric, as you've noted.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, fellas. I haven't seen "We Own The Night," but now I'm interested. I'm going to go in with low expectations (why I skipped it in the first place), but with the hope that maybe it was mismarketed. It's in the queue.

Fox: Phoenix is terrific, and I get the sense that his best could be ahead of him, if he explores it.

Daniel: Thanks. Oh, and Eva Mendes. Another reason to see "We Own The Night."

Fox said...

Umm... the opening scene with Mendes in We Own The Night??????

I'm just sayin'.

Jason Bellamy said...

Yeah, I've heard she display a lot of, you know, talent.