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Review: “Two Lovers” (Gray, USA)

James Gray has exactly what American cinema needs—sincerity.
James Gray has exactly what American cinema needs—sincerity. Gray deals in melodrama—and male melodrama at that—but treats it with a solemn seriousness that makes one believe again in the earnestness of American genre cinema. Rooted in place (Queens, New York), milieu (ethnic urban families), and social bonds of family, heart, and loyalty, Gray's cinema is poised to make us all remember the reason why international audiences ate up Hollywood films of the 1930s—a heartfelt vision of one's society, coded in style and basic human psychology. Two Lovers is neither as epic as The Yards nor as coiled and insular as We Own the Night, but its practically immediate release after Gray's last film—"immediate" compared to the near decade long gap between the last two—excuses all. Finally we see what it is like when Gray makes films regularly rather than sporadically, and the result is just as rich.
If Two Lovers's somber attitude were not fascinating enough, one must take supreme pleasure in the combination, yet again, of writer/director Gray with actor Joaquin Phoenix. This collaboration goes beyond the kind one finds with Scoreses/De Niro, Chow/Woo, or most other examples; simply put, one cannot tell where Gray leaves off and Phoenix begins. The actor is the film, its mise-en-scène, coded to his manner of speech and thought; his existence precludes everything, as if Queens would be a sun-filled, frivolous place if vacated by Joacquin Phoenix's character Leonard.
A gloomy young man, living in his bedroom at his parents’ house after a suicide attempt and hospitalization, he finds himself between two potential commitments: a woman who loves him, and a woman he loves. The sign that Gray means what he says is that there is no bullshit here, the girl who loves Leonard, Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), is a catch: beautiful and compassionate, like Leonard, she is from a Jewish family, and the relationship would cement a business deal.  The problem is that Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) just moved into the apartment building, and her aura of blonde, clubbing Manhattanite spurs on the romantic in the suicidal Leonard, who sees visions of his long lost fiancé.
So the relationships are close and the answers are not easy, as Leonard cares for his lover, and Sandra likewise cares for him, and the result is not the end goal of whom to choose, but rather the turmoil of a lack of easy answers, driven by stormy, dark emotions. The characters, written by Gray and Richard Menello, are simple, clear, and relatable, driven not by ticks and depth but by unhappiness in life and a desire to build futures based on strong, loving relationships. As always in Gray, Phoenix turns inward, insular, and angry navigating the ambiguity and ambivalence of the decisions that he faces, and Paltrow takes an archetype of the urban everyday and gives her a magnetic, vulnerable beauty that contrasts—again, simply but powerfully—with Shaw's safe, content, supportive existence in the triangle.
The film moves broadly but with strength, and is very moving. Like the final line of We Own the Night, the conclusion of Two Lovers achieves a brutal, heartfelt admission whose triumph is its utter believability and commitment. Indeed, only on witnessing such powerful belief in the seriousness of human emotion and conflict does one see how frivolous much of cinema really is.
I wish I could be more eloquent, or as eloquent as you, but this movie is absurd, campy, implausible and horribly miscast. Phoenix as a neurotic, depressed, inarticulate young Jewish man makes about as much sense as Ben Stiller playing Pitt’s role in Legends of the Fall. And Vinessa Shaw as the dowdy, safe choice? Vinessa Shaw is a fox, and no amount of Corleone-esque lighting and making her wear Shelley Duvall’s wardrobe from the Shining is going to hide that fact. What I’m interested in is why does Gray give film critics such a boner (with the exception of the good people at Film Comment)? Because he’s doing something no one else is doing? Maybe there’s a reason why no one makes movies like this anymore. Because they’re silly. As far as I can tell, Two Lovers is the kind of movie John Hughes would be making if he was still making movies. Call it Gordon Willis’ Some Kind of Wonderful.
I haven’t seen Two Lovers yet, but I’m with Mac on James Gray, especially regarding We Own The Night and The Yards. In both of these films, the characters seem to understand how cinematic they are, and in turn revel in their self-importance. James Gray’s endings, especially in We Own the Night, which Daniel responds to greatly, feels to me completely false and unearned.
Mac & Glenn, I would love to engage your thoughts about Gray but I’m not sure what either of yours problems with his films are. Glenn, you say his “characters seem to understand how cinematic they are,” are you really saying these characters display a self-reflexivity and self-awareness inside the diegesis? I’d probably say the opposite (though I haven’t seen the film since last May), that Gray’s characters are so far removed from “trendy” contemporary irony and reflexivity that they appear strange because they are so immeshed and committed to the world of the film. Mac, as I said, I’m not sure what your beef with the film is. You say Phoenix’s character doesn’t make sense…how so? And that Shaw is a fox is part of the great ambivalence of the melodrama on the film: Phoenix is “stuck” between two equally beautiful but very different women representing very different things. It is not an easy choice, and casting someone who is indeed dowdy would evaporate all the mystery from the film. Casting Shaw as a character who is supposed to be dowdy and safe (comes from the same background as Phoenix’s character, is family/religioously sanctioned/approved, seems to have no sexual history, etc.) is what makes the film interesting. I don’t see what anyone needs to be up in arms about praising this film. If anything, Mac, you should be asking why are audiences not receptive to a filmmaker and films that get a great deal of intelligent praise in respected places (I’m not referring to this blog, but mainly to critics abroad). The John Hughes connection is interesting, I’d like to think about that some more, especially as this film, even those it casts 30-somethings, is clearly about teenagers or young adults.
Daniel, I guess my main problem with Gray, is that his supposed tragic endings feel cheap and very theatrical, as opposed to a Michael Mann film or a Kelly Reichardt film. Especially We Own the Night. I’ve never understood how someone can take that ending so seriously when the characters themselves are completely devoid of complexity or nuance. Now, Gray is obviously working in a different type of style than these other filmmakers I’ve referenced, but his pacing, his mise-en-scene, his endings, just scream for attention, whereas the tragic ending of another cop drama from recent years, Miami Vice, ends with a desolate, somber walk back to reality for it’s protagonist, not some over the top line of dialogue in the final scene. I know we’ve had this discussion before Daniel, and I can see why you like Gray so much (I do like his movies, just not as much as the die hard fans like yourself). I hope this clarifies my muddled earlier thoughts.

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