CANNES – They don’t make pictures like James Gray’s “Two Lovers” anymore. It’s an old-fashioned love story in which the melodramatic trapdoors of shock and surprise never open. Joaquin Phoenix plays a rumpled innocent with two coins in the fountain of love and the only suspense is over which one the fountain will bless.
Shot, paced and scored like a 1950s kitchen-sink romance, the film spurns the school of Judd Apatow with a complete disdain for adolescent contrivance and stupid gags. Box office will depend on audiences in the “Grand Theft Auto” era deciding that the fate of three little people adds up to more than a hill of beans. Lacking a larger context such as a world war, odds are they won’t, but the film will please many and it may win awards.
The story asks the eternal question of whether it’s wiser to pursue the one you love or turn to the one who loves you. It is also a snapshot of the tribal ritual that pits the instinct for loyalty and continuity against the temptation to stride into the unknown.
In this case, the environment is the Jewish community in New York’s Brighton Beach in a deliberately fuzzy time period. Phoenix plays Leonard, the adopted son of Reuben Kraditor (Moni Moshonov) and his wife Ruth (Isabella Rossellini), who is suicidal after being forced to break off a planned marriage due to circumstances beyond his control.
Earnest and dutiful, Leonard works in his father’s dry cleaning business, which is about to be merged with a larger operation. In the process, he is encouraged to romance the potential partner’s lovely daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw, pictured top with Phoenix and with Gwyneth Paltrow) as much as anything out of fealty.
Leonard, however, has a freer spirit with a good eye for photography, and when he encounters shining blonde Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has moved into his parents’ apartment building, he is instantly smitten. Michelle comes with baggage, including an older married lover Ronald (Elias Koteas) and perhaps a taste for whatever gets you through the night, but Leonard doesn’t care.
Phoenix plays the romantic lead with great intelligence and enormous charm, making his character’s conflict utterly believable, and Paltrow positively glows as the radiant shiksa who dazzles him. As the other woman, though, Shaw (“3:10 to Yuma”) presents a small problem. She’s a very good actress and made to look slightly dowdy but she is so beautiful and graceful that you wonder what on earth Leonard is thinking.
But it works, and the script by director Gray and Richard Menello plays it straight throughout with Michael Clancy’s atmospheric production design and Joaquin Baca-Asay’s classic cinematography giving the film a sturdy look, never loud or gaudy.
The acting is similarly restrained. Moshonov and Rossellini play the parents as loving but world-weary; worried for their son but wishing him the best. Koteas gives the married lover added dimension and the rest of the cast is equally convincing.
Venue: Festival de Cannes, In Competition; Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov; Director: James Gray; Screenwriters: James Gray & Richard Menello; Producers: Donna Gigliotti, James Gray, Anthony Katagas. Director of photography: Joaquin Baca-Asay. Production designer: Happy Massee. Music: Dana Sano. Costume designer: Michael Clancy. Editor: John Axelrad; Producers: Donna Gigliotti, James Gray, Anthony Katagas. Executive producers: Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Marc Butan. Sales: Wild Bunch; No MPAA rating, running time, 100 mins.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.