Has bad-rapper Joaquin Phoenix always been something of a sweet nebbish and we just didn’t know it? His soft voice and bounding awkwardness brought weird notes to Gladiator’s Commodus and to Johnny Cash. But here, as Two Lovers’ shut-in Leonard, a thirtyish sad sack living with his Brighton Beach parents and getting over a devastating breakup with a long-gone fiance, he excels like never before.
Leonard evolves before our eyes (a tribute to a beautifully modulated script by director James Gray and Ric Menello): suicidal, goofy, hard working, certainly not childish. The movie is set at the moment when he finally begins to love again and, as these things sometimes happen, he meets two worthy candidates at once. There’s upstairs-neighbor Michelle (Paltrow, balancing shiksa goddess with vulnerability), already involved with a married man, and grounded Sandra (Shaw), whom Leonard’s doting parents obviously prefer.
Our hero is a different guy with either of them, and from the strategy center of his lonely bedroom, Leonard falls deeply for one. I won’t say whom; the beauty of James Gray’s movie is not its celebration of rebirth but its sophisticated embrace of something more resigned and random. Gray, a Queens native and maker of several tough-minded NYC stories (2000’s The Yards), obviously knows from couples flirting on the Q train and from Meatpacking-district nightclubs and swanky Midtown restaurants (excellent for discreet cheating). But who knew this director was also wise to the ache of imperfect connection? So much of life’s momentousness is accidental; nothing in Two Lovers is. Finally, the year’s first serious American movie.--Joshua Rothkopf