Forgiving my ignorance, I only know of three films so deeply anchored in the Brighton Beach area of New York. One is Brighton Beach Memoirs – adapted from the genius Neil Simon play of the same name. The other two are directed by James Gray. Fifteen years ago, Gray wrote and directed Little Odessa starring Tim Roth, last year Gray gave Joaquin Phoenix’s character in We Own the Night ownership over a Brighton Beach bar, but now he returns fully into the Brighton Beach deep end with Two Lovers.
There must be something about the Coney Island-bound section that breeds an unease about life, something that fills the air with angst, a general sentiment that gives the people living there a kind of depth of feeling that breeds the sort of artistic output that gets rooted in its boardwalk. Yet again, Gray delivers a story about unrest born firmly in Brighton Beach.
Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved back into his parents’ apartment after a split from his fiance which has left him heartbroken and direction-less. Despite seeming uninterested in getting his life together, he strikes up a relationship with a family friend’s daughter (Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw) at his parents’ behest while striking up another with an unstable neighbor (Michelle, played by Gwyneth Paltrow).
By the first few minutes, I was incredibly concerned that this film was going to be dominated by the sort of dramatic pablum that works its way into most indie romances – wispy editing work, generic romantic statements floating on the wind, too many attempts to convey what’s happening internally. The opening sequence finds Leonard jumping casually from a small bridge into the cold water below and sinking down as a fading memory of a beautiful woman telling him she has to leave him blends into the screen. I thought I was doomed to two hours of faux-dramatic trickery, but luckily, and inconceivably, the movie recovers and goes on to build a strong story about a man who struggles with life and two wonderful women.
As much as I could say about Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw bringing strong performances to the table, it all goes double and triple for Joaquin Phoenix. Leonard is an increasingly complex man as shown through the duration of the story – a sort of grown up child that swims into bouts of honesty and playfulness followed by confusion, weakness and frustration. It’s clear that Leonard is on some sort of medication – perhaps for bipolar disorder – but it’s not always clear whether he’s missing a dose or three. Phoenix delivers on the range and allows himself to be vulnerable enough to sink into the character. If his performance were all that was needed, he’d carry the movie by himself. Fortunately, Paltrow and Shaw are fantastic in their roles, the former playing a disturbed young woman with low self-esteem and an unhealthy relationship with a married man, and the latter playing a subdued girl who seems somehow too eager to be with Leonard.
Of course, there is a lot more going on beyond the surface. Sandra certainly desires Leonard, but she’s also a sort of symbol of his father’s business merger – the sale of his laundromat to a larger company owned by Sandra’s father. She’s traditional, but not too stuffy to be dull. Gorgeous, but not as thrilling as Paltrow’s Michelle. She’s sweet, but she’s also low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, Michelle is a complete fantasy – a manic pixie dream girl from hell. It’s clear that she doesn’t have her life together and uses Leonard’s friendship as support. She’s flighty and unpredictable. Just like Leonard. All of these ideas are expressed with adeptness by the actors.
Still, even though it’s a character study, Two Lovers is beautifully shot. The opening sequence may have worried me for the story’s sake, but it achieved a goal in making me feel as cold as the people walking near the water as Fall approaches. This freezing cold runs throughout the film as a steady counterpart to how heated Leonard is emotionally and romantically. Plus, it’s clear the love that director James Gray feels for Brighton Beach, because it’s captured well enough to make it seem like home for someone who’s never even visited. The grind of the subway cars, the wrap-around apartment building where Leonard channels Romeo in looking up at Michelle’s window through his own, the feel of a culture that stays insulated to celebrate and mourn together. It’s strangely hopeful and sadly nostalgic at the same time, like the cinematic version of a Bob Dylan song.
Speaking of which, the film doesn’t feature much in the way of scoring, but it’s used sparsely and effectively – mostly colored by the environmental sounds of apartment and street life on Coney Island.
The film could still be tighter – a few scenes seem to slow it down instead of add to the story – and a few character choices seem off, but overall the movie captures an engaging story that either has a happy ending that’s painful or a sad ending that seems hopeful depending on your point of view. On another acting note, Isabella Rossellini brings her usual brilliance to a smaller role of Leonard’s mother. As a testament to her skill, she turns what first appears as a strange character choice into a unique character flaw purely on acting skill alone. If not for her, I’d be chastising the writers (Director James Gray and Ric Menello) for cheating, but she makes even the questionable believable.
I can’t imagine going to see this as a Valentine’s date, unless you’re willing to open yourself to a contentious relationship discussion or want to risk not cuddling up later, but it stands as a strong example of romance and drama if just a little bit unconventional.
The Upside: Fantastic acting performance, solid cinematography, a complex story between complex characters
The Downside: A few extraneous scenes, some awkward character choices
On the side: Joaquin Phoenix raps for a few lines in the movie. It’s endearing and prescient.