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.