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New York (Love) Stories

Two Lovers (2008)

Magnolia Pictures

“Two Lovers” continues James Gray’s love affair with the outer boroughs of New York City. It’s also the first to render that boundless affection with something other than a thriller aesthetic. Here he transforms working class Brighton Beach and the crowded, homely apartment of the Kraditor family into an idealized setting for a poignant, beautifully told romantic chamber piece. Filled with old-world tchotchkes, ancient framed photographs and a tight-knit assortment of other furnishings, the apartment symbolizes the community as a whole and conveys the underpinnings of the love triangle that unfolds.

It is an insular world that Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), the Kraditor son, longs to escape. He has returned home depressed after a failed relationship; and his mother (Isabella Rosselini) and father (Moni Moshonov) – in grand Eastern European Jewish tradition – instantly play matchmaker. They set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the beautiful daughter of a friend and business partner. Leonard likes her but is drawn towards Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his emotionally troubled non-Jewish neighbor, who is struggling with her affection for a married man.

Mr. Gray, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rich Menello, smartly lays out the choice Leonard faces in simple, relatable concrete terms. It’s an old, familiar lifestyle contrasted with a new, dangerous one. It’s the option to settle in comfort, to stay ensconced in Brighton, or experience the possibilities, however risky and unreliable, beyond the apartment door. “Two Lovers” is set in the present, but the timelessness of the classic assimilation dilemma at its core, variations of which have played out in immigrant families throughout the world for centuries, gives it a powerful old-fashioned appeal.

The filmmaker compounds it by imbuing the film with classical compositions, tender close-ups and moments of sweeping, heartfelt romanticism. Mr. Phoenix – in what he claims will be his valedictory performance – projects enormous sympathy in his every frame. His expressive eyes and sly smile convey a particular, deeply rooted sadness that Mr. Gray expertly draws out, while his interactions with Mses. Shaw and Paltrow are filled with complicated feeling. Leonard is a singular character; he’s childlike in many ways while being thoroughly worn down by his life experiences. And Mr. Phoenix makes the pain of such a contradictory existence resonate.

The picture is strongly, intrinsically tied to Leonard’s interior being and each segment of the apartment feels connected in some way. There’s his messy bedroom, still adorned with posters and filled with teenage touches. There are the living and dining rooms, where the figures invested in shaping his future meet and plot things out. Finally, a lot the most significant drama occurs across the alley dividing one half of the building from the other, providing Leonard a perfect view of Michelle’s apartment. Their communications across that boundary, by way of shouts or stolen glances during phone conversations, speak powerfully to the locked-in feeling that torments Leonard.

Mr. Gray renders all this with a rich, operatic soundtrack that features Henry Mancini and gives “Two Lovers” the texture of a classical Hollywood melodrama. It feels positively Sirkian in its careful stylization and close consideration of matters of the repressed human heart. Simultaneously, it evokes the spirit of the best of specified New York City filmmaking by opening things up with its stark, convincing depiction of the Brighton community. Lastly, it provides conclusive evidence that, should Mr. Phoenix be serious about his new career as a musician, the loss will be a profound one.


Opens on Feb. 13 in the United States.

Directed by James Gray; written by Mr. Gray and Richard Menello; director of photography, Joaquin Baca-Asay; edited by John Axelrad; production designer, Happy Massee; produced by Mr. Gray, Anthony Katagas and Donna Gigliotti; released by Magnolia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Joaquin Phoenix (Leonard Kraditor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Michelle Rausch), Vinessa Shaw (Sandra Cohen), Isabella Rossellini (Ruth Kraditor) and Elias Koteas (Ronald Blatt).


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