‘Two Lovers’ an intriguingly intense and intimate dilemma drama

Posted 2/12/21

A romantic-triangle drama in which Joaquin Phoenix stars as a troubled thirtysomething, heartbroken from a recent breakup, with bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies, who suddenly finds himself juggling two new romances.

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‘Two Lovers’ an intriguingly intense and intimate dilemma drama

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Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

With that Best Actor Oscar for his “Joker” in his pocket, maybe Joachin Phoenix has had enough of starting rumors about quitting acting. Instead, he can celebrate Valentine’s Day by recalling what is arguably his best work.“Two Lovers” (2009) is a romantic-triangle drama in which he stars as a troubled thirtysomething, heartbroken from a recent breakup, with bipolar disorder and suicidal tendencies, who suddenly finds himself juggling two new romances.

Set in the Brighton Beach section in Brooklyn, it’s a character study about bachelor Leonard Kraditor, a would-be photographer and devoted, tormented Jewish son who lives with and works for his immigrant parents (Isabella Rossellini and Israeli actor Moni Moshonov), and who is torn between the Jewish family friend his parents would like to see him marry, played by Vinessa Shaw, and the fetching but unbalanced Gentile neighbor to whom he is fatefully drawn, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Leonard knows which is the most sensible, practical, and acceptable romantic road for him to travel: let's face it, the woman his parents are pushing him towards is beautiful, knowing, and desirable.  As for that "other woman," who lives in his apartment complex, she's emotionally immature, is being "kept" by an older married man and has a drug-problem history.  But, as the saying goes, the heart wants what it wants, which is why Leonard continues to pursue unattainable romantic adventure rather than his-for-the-asking comfort and security.

This is the most engaging, provocative, entertaining, and satisfying film that writer-director James Gray has made thus far.  And although it is, like all his films, downbeat, it's the first that's not about larger-than-life crime.  This one's about life as lived.

The acting is uniformly fine, with Paltrow and Shaw bringing their characters, who represent Leonard's life choices, to vivid three-dimensionality.  But it's Phoenix who does the heavy lifting, his understated charisma winning the day and making you root for and suffer with him in this somber, gritty, low-key portrait of a guy drowning in ambivalence, repression, yearning, and resignation.

The script is loosely based on a Dostoevsky short story ("White Nights") and offers throughout a refreshingly high level of ambiguity, one that makes matters always seem much more like real life than reel life.  That includes an opening that plays like an ending and an ending that's really a beginning.

With regard to the resolution, it bravely flirts with preposterousness and might frustrate or even infuriate some viewers as would a careless false note.  But, in retrospect, it seems an especially interesting narrative choice and should inspire post-movie discussions and arguments. 

An intriguingly intense and intimate dilemma drama, “Two Lovers” is highlighted by Joaquin's splendid performance.  Yep, this talented Phoenix continues to rise.

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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