Stuck in the Middle

2 Mar

Joaquin Phoenix is such a great actor that it’s really a shame he had to pull that bizarre act on David Letterman a couple weeks ago. In his new film, Two Lovers, he gives such an impressive performance — just as he did in other films, including Walk the Line and Gladiator — that it’s hard to believe the actor and the rapper wannabe are one and the same person. Or … maybe that’s just proof of how versatile he really is.

In Two Lovers, Phoenix plays Leonard, who has moved back in with his parents in the decidedly unhip Russian Jewish neighborhood of Brighton Beach following his break-up with his fiancee. To keep busy and keep his mind off his heartbreak, Leonard works in his father’s cleaners, which his father is planning to merge with the owner of another cleaners. Actually, there’s another merger at work: Leonard is fixed up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), whose father owns the other cleaners. A relationship with Sandra promises stability, comfort, and emotional rescue. But that’s when Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has moved into the building where Leonard lives. Leonard is instantly drawn to the hip, beautiful, vivacious Michelle, and she sparks his personality. But while Leonard is crushing on Michelle, she is involved in a self-destructive affair with a married man. And we always want the ones we can’t have, right? The two women possess opposite qualities, and Leonard is attracted to them for different reasons. So he is faced with a choice: will it be love or lust?

As noted, Phoenix is really terrific here. He gives a sensitive, emotional, totally believable performance. He doesn’t hit a single false note. The two women are also very good, though Shaw certainly comes across better than Paltrow. I like how director James Gray films the Manhattan and Brighton Beach scenes differently, so as to emphasize how much more exciting Michelle’s life is. And I also appreciated how the film avoids the cliche of having the two women meet, thus forcing Leonard to make his big choice. What happens here happens organically, naturally. Is it an easy decision? No. But it’s a testament to the writing and to Phoenix’s performance that it all feels very real. I’m giving Two Lovers an A–.

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