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.