Joaquin Phoenix's performance as a vulnerable, off-beat loner caught between two women sustains the film's melodrama.


hapless man loves a beautiful woman. Another beautiful woman loves the hapless man. He must choose between them. The story told in Two Lovers (2009), directed by James Gray, is familiar and relatable, and yet it’s precisely these qualities that make the film a success. Pitch-perfect performances and stunning sincerity elevate what could’ve been a staid romantic melodrama into a poetically realistic myth.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, an emotionally troubled, interpersonally entangled man stained with the look of despondency. In the opening scene, Leonard plunges into the waters of Sheepshead Bay in an attempted suicide; he quickly thinks better of it, yelps for help, and then denies he jumped in the first place. Leonard has attempted suicide before after a failed engagement, and thus his caring father (Israeli actor Moni Moshonov), who owns a dry cleaning business, and cautiously nosy mother (Isabella Rossellini) constantly fuss over him. He lives with them in their Brighton Beach apartment, imbued with lived-in textures and details of outer-borough Jewish-immigrant milieu reminiscent of Gray’s own youth. (Later on, a guest even says, “It’s nostalgic, like the house I grew up in.”) The close confines of the living quarters and their sense of homey drabness feel at once stultifying and comforting. Joaquin Baca-Asay’s 35mm photography employs warm yellow tones that underscore these qualities, and he juxtaposes them with frigid blue hues for the exterior scenes.

Under the pretext of a business meeting, Leonard's father arranges for him to meet Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a potential buyer for his business. Leonard entertains the steady, patient Jewish girl-from-the-neighborhood and shows her his photographs, though more out of politeness and respect for his parents than any lusting feeling. If his heart flutters, he doesn’t show it. That only happens the next day when he chances upon a tall, glamorous blonde—Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow)—in the hallway and momentarily shelters her from her screaming father two floors above. Inside the Kraditor residence, she gazes obliviously at a dreidel in the film’s solely implausible moment.

The impetuous Michelle turns out to be dealing with substance abuse and a married lover, a Manhattan lawyer responsible for putting her up in an apartment at the tail end of the Q train line. Even as he consults Michelle on her ill-advised affair, Leonard’s infatuation intensifies, fueled at least slightly by the notion that he can provide her some respite. He also continues to see Sandra—until of course he can’t keep juggling them both.

When the film came out, Phoenix was on something of a farewell tour, bidding goodbye to acting in favor of a hip-hop career, which turned out to be a performance art piece that doubled as promotion for Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010). Phoenix’s spacey, passive-aggressive behavior in the media overshadowed Two Lovers’ release, but it feels like the actor carried Leonard’s despair into the real world. Phoenix gives the best performance of his career in Two Lovers, eschewing the overwrought bravado witnessed in Joker (2019) or Beau Is Afraid (2023). (You might even say that Gray’s 2008 film anticipated Phoenix’s typecasting as the uniquely off-beat loner.) Instead, he maintains a sensitive balance between the various shades of his damaged psyche: skittishness, modesty, an endearing goofy streak, and an undeniable strangeness. Few of his performances possess the intimacy and introspective restraint found here, and it’s his disarming vulnerability that sustains the film.

Gray loosely modeled the film on White Nights, an 1848 Dostoyevsky short story where the nameless male narrator escapes his deep and utter loneliness through fervent dreaming. (It’s where director Robert Bresson acquired the title for Four Nights of a Dreamer, his 1971 adaptation of the story.) You could say that Leonard is a dreamer too, but Gray locates the film’s drama by exploring the constraints put on his aspirations. Familial responsibilities hinder Leonard’s pursuit of independence; though he’s in his early 30s, he seems to not have experienced even a taste of life. He wrestles with his identity, insecurities, and perceived cultural embarrassments—the perennial struggle of finding where one truly belongs. The two romantic interests represent distinct paths that could set him on his course. While Sandra brings familiarity and stability, Shiksa Michelle, who resides just across the courtyard, inhabits a far-away world filled with clubs, opera, and Brandy Alexanders. In these dynamics, one woman would care for him while the other would become the recipient of his nurture.

Gray’s first three films primarily concerned gangsters and criminals, people living in worlds dominated by violence. But Two Lovers marked a turning point in his career, predicating his launch into more diverse genres and larger-scale stories outside of his hometown, at least until his latest work Armageddon Time (2022). It also coincided with Gwyneth Paltrow's departure from intriguing cinematic roles as she shifted focus to the Marvel Movies and the wellness sphere. (Iron Man and Goop were both introduced to the public in 2008, the same year Gray’s film debuted and deservedly won plaudits at Cannes.) This intimate drama from what feels like forever ago still holds a captivating allure because of Gray's masterful, old-fashioned approach: he extracts compelling drama from an unremarkable dilemma played out amongst ordinary people, which sadly remains a true rarity in contemporary cinema.

Two Lovers is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, Peacock, Tubi, Pluto TV, and Vudu.

Elissa is a film critic and culture writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Screen Slate, MUBI Notebook, Bomb Magazine, and Eater. She also publishes moviepudding, a newsletter dedicated to film and food.

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