Awash in romantic ambivalence and pained, inarticulate yearning, director James Gray's new melodrama Two Lovers should probably be considered ridiculous. And while I'll concede that on some level it's fairly absurd, I also found it impossible not to be swept up in the film's gonzo sincerity; tickled by its eccentric humor; and dazzled by Gray's lush stretches of cinematic elegance.

Joaquin Phoenix stars, delivering his farewell film performance--at least according to that dopey bearded-rapper shtick he's been pulling on talk shows. (I don't believe any of it for a second.) Here, he plays Leonard Kraditor, a heartsick, bumbling mess who's recently reclaimed his childhood bedroom, living with his parents in the insular Jewish community of Brighton Beach. We hear mention of a bad breakup, and subsequent suicidal overtures. Off-kilter Leonard even hurls himself into Sheepshead Bay before the opening credits have unspooled, only to think better of it and head home for dinner.

He's an odd, tormented duck, but also quite funny and vulnerable at unexpected moments. This is Phoenix's third collaboration with writer-director Gray, and the two have clearly established a level of comfort that allows the actor to go for broke here, pushing his mumbled Brando-isms and sideways line readings to a state of grace. It's brave, marvelous work and you're never quite sure what he's going to do next.

Leonard is all set to inherit his family's thriving dry-cleaning empire, and his folks can't help playing matchmaker for their wayward son, constantly inviting an important business partner's daughter to the house for all sorts of awkward family occasions. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is sexy, stable and inexplicably captivated by Leonard. (What such a put-together gal sees in this cuckoo-bird is a question the film never answers.) Leonard likes her just fine, but he's distracted.

Two Lovers


Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow

Director: James Gray

Opens Fri., Feb. 27

There's a blonde shiksa goddess living in an apartment upstairs, sticking out like a sore thumb in this ethnically hermetic community. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Michelle, mistress to a hotshot Manhattan lawyer and for all intents and purposes she's a walking disaster. At long last ditching her boring Grace Kelly ingenue routine, Paltrow tears into the role with a reckless grit we haven't seen since her early days in Hard Eight or Flesh and Bone. Michelle is druggy, erratic and altogether mesmerizing, triggering amour fou at first sight in our bewildered young Leonard.

Adapted by Gray and co-screenwriter Richard Menello from Dostoyevsky's "White Nights," Two Lovers boasts a brazenly schematic framework. Obviously, Sandra represents stability, responsibility and a long, quiet future in the old neighborhood, while Michelle personifies the reckless moment, fits of overheated passion and childish notions of a bohemian life. In many ways, it could even be considered a remake of Gray's last feature, We Own the Night, which starred Phoenix as another prodigal son, dabbling in drug deals and nightclub shenanigans to break free from his family of career cops.

But Gray's previous pictures have been stilted crime dramas, strikingly well-made but typically done in by a sense of Shakespearean solemnity. Ditching the genre conventions has worked wonders for the filmmaker; it feels like somebody finally opened a window and let some air in. Two Lovers is looser and far more alive than anything he's done before.

There's a richness to his depiction of this Brighton Beach neighborhood, with some sharp insights on the class divide and unexpected bursts of humor. (Isabella Rossellini delivers a very droll performance as Leonard's asphyxiating mother.) Gray and cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay are stubbornly old-school, favoring the long-take, classical compositions of vintage Coppola and '70s European art cinema.

But there's always something erupting within the confines of these rigidly designed shots, whether it's Phoenix pulling out the stops for a break-dancing bonanza, or Paltrow's over-the-top breast-baring declarations of adoration. Two Lovers conjures the heedless rush of true romance, and yet somehow the movie remains clear-eyed enough to question how much of it is just immature delusions.

You may find yourself pondering Gray's closing shot for quite some time, wondering if it's Leonard's triumph--or his entombment.


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