It is always fascinating to watch a director work with his/her acting muse. The bond that forms on screen is electrifying as both the director and the actor push each other in bold new creative directions. Martin Scorsese had it with Robert DeNiro from the seventies through to the nineties. Now Scorsese has it again with Leonardo Dicaprio. Other examples of this can be found in the pairings of: Woody Allen and Diane Keating and/or Mia Farrow, Hal Hartley and Martin Donovan; P.T. Anderson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz, and the list goes on and on. For director James Gray, his muse is clearly Joaquin Phoenix as the two have worked together on three straight movies including Gray’s latest work, Two Lovers. The first thing that struck me about Two Lovers was how much of a departure it is from Gray’s earlier crime laden works: Little Odessa, The Yards (his strongest work to date), and We Own the Night (by far Gray’s weakest film).
Two Lovers looks at all the complications that arise as a result of being in love. In the film Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a man who is so wounded by the demise of a previous relationship that he attempts to kill himself. After his failed suicide attempt, Leonard returns to his parents’ (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) home, were he has been living for the last months, just in time for a dinner party. It is at this dinner where Leonard meets Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the man who wants to buy the dry cleaning business from Leonard’s father. Sandra is clearly interested in Leonard and his love life may finally be back on the upswing. As luck would have it, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his new neighbor upstairs, the very next day. Leonard is instantly attracted to Michelle and feels that she may be “the one”. Like Leonard, Michelle is carrying a lot of emotional baggage of her own, including an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas). Can Leonard successfully juggle relationships with both women at the same time? Should he even be in a relationship in his current state? One thing is for sure, Leonard will soon learn the hardest lesson of love…that there are no easy answers.
While there are technically “two lovers” that Leonard must deal with, the film plays more like “one and a half lovers.” James Gray is far more compelled with the dynamics of Leonard and Michelle’s relationship than he is with Leonard and Sandra’s. Gray, and fellow writer Ric Menello, really strive to make Phoenix and Paltrow’s characters fully realized. We understand how Leonard’s bipolar tendencies often blind him to the reality of the situation. Leonard believes that, because they share love induced heartbreak, only he can truly see Michelle for the person she is. Similarly, with Michelle, we see that her desperation to be love by Ronald (Koteas), is leading her astray. She clings onto a romanticized version of love that does not quite exist. It is obvious that Ronald is bad for Michelle, just as Michelle is bad for Leonard.
The problem with paying so much attention to making Leonard and Michelle well rounded characters is that Sandra is left floating in the wind. Sandra really should be the spark that ignites the tension in the love triangle. Unfortunately, she becomes a rather forgettable character as Gray gives her no real arc whatsoever. Sandra is identical to Betty in Archie Comics. She is the good girl who will always be there; providing Archie to spend ample time with Veronica until things between the two go sour. Two Lovers would have benefitted greatly had James Gray developed the character of Sandra a lot further. Not only would it provide much deeper complexity to Leonard’s situation, but it would allow the final moments of the picture to resonate much more than it actually does.
As Sandra, Vinessa Shaw did a good job with what little she was given, but I got the sense that she would have really taken the character to a great place had she been given the chance. As a result, Two Lovers succeeds mainly on the work of Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. Both actors do an admirable job keeping each other at the top of their game. There is also strong supporting work by Rossellini and Moshonov. The two really keep the parents grounded and realistic. They manage to be caring but never over barring, even when circumstances would force most parents to be.
Two Lovers is both compelling and uneven at times. It is a good movie that never fully lives up to its potential…just like some relationships.