Falling into love

Stellar cast navigates multiple relationship dramas

LOVE PLUS ONE, PLUS … <br>The relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw’s characters is just one of many couplings in writer/director James Gray’s Golden Palm-nominated <i>Two Lovers</i>.

The relationship between Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw’s characters is just one of many couplings in writer/director James Gray’s Golden Palm-nominated Two Lovers.

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Two Lovers
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw and Isabella Rossellini. Directed by James Gray. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Actually, there are several lovers in the new film Two Lovers by James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), and several intertwined and entangled love stories fuel the stark, turbulent melodrama emerging in another of the gritty, urban settings (Brighton Beach, Brooklyn) that have proven customary and striking with this filmmaker.

It’s a passionate but patently unromantic tale of young people falling into and out of love, amid a range of personal crises and assorted pressures of family and work. And the sharp, tough-minded script (by Gray and Ric Menello) provides the intriguingly complex occasion for an exceptional performance by Joaquin Phoenix.

Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a deeply depressed 30-something who has moved back into his parents’ home in the aftermath of an abrupt, forced break-up with his fiancée. The title refers to the two young women with whom he becomes romantically involved, almost simultaneously and more or less by chance, while still on the rebound from the break-up and still in the thrall of a suicidal despair.

Blonde Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newly encountered neighbor in Leonard’s apartment building, meets him on the rebound from a domestic dispute in her own place. The two become friends first, via his attentiveness to her personal troubles, and lovers later, but only after it becomes apparent that those problems include drug use and a very troubled romance with the married man who is also her boss in a law firm.

Modest and demure Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his parents’ business associates, meets him in the mutually embarrassing circumstances of a gathering of the two families for what is ostensibly a celebration of her father’s purchase of his parents’ dry-cleaning business. Quiet, friendly resistance to their parents’ transparent schemes creates an immediate bond between the two of them, but romance doesn’t really take bloom until Leonard is on the rebound again—this time during one of the dramatic downswings in his wildly unstable relationship with the glamorously erratic Michelle.

Part of the film’s special brilliance resides in its incisive sense of the ways in which the emotional demands of seemingly separate relationships can end up bleeding into each other, with compromises and fulfillments alike getting displaced from one to the other. To one degree or another, all three of the principal characters—Sandra and Michelle, as well as Leonard—find their respective emerging senses of themselves and each other variously buffeted about by serendipitous events, large and small.

Phoenix makes Leonard’s mixtures of grieving reluctance and passionate intensity thoroughly persuasive throughout, while Paltrow and Shaw give excellent support in the contrastingly ironic title roles. And Isabella Rossellini, in the role of Leonard’s mother, has only a few lines to speak, but she embodies, memorably and quite effectively, one of the key forces in the film’s emotional turbulence, and does so mostly through the sheer, focused intensity of her gaze in some key moments.