If this really is his acting swansong, Joaquin Phoenix, Gray’s signature performer, shows no lack of commitment as a troubled young man caught between two very different women. On the rebound from a breakdown, Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor finds himself back with his parents in Brighton Beach, where his dry-cleaner dad is soon trying to pair him off with a colleague’s daughter (Vanessa Shaw). While there’s a spark between them, Phoenix is also distracted by an attractive neighbour (Gwyneth Paltrow, effectively cast against type), whose nearby apartment is paid for by her wealthy married lover.
It’s a scenario ripe for comedy, yet Gray approaches it with characteristic gravitas (inspired by Dostoyevsky’s ‘White Nights’), examining the destructive romantic myth of perfect fulfilment. Obviously, kindly Shaw wants to look after still-hurting Phoenix, whereas messed-up Paltrow stirs his own nurturing instincts, each woman providing what the other cannot. Fair enough as a conceit, but in the real world you can’t imagine either of these women giving such a creepy, constipated character a second glance. Gray’s direction lovingly toys with images of containment and release, effectively playing out the drama in visual terms – but we never really feel it.