Two Lovers

Movie Review by Samuel Taradash

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini

Director: James Gray

It’s not often that a film so full of vivid, well-realized characters also takes place in an accessible, realistic and fully realized setting. TWO LOVERS is that rarity of film: moving and believable, without resorting to melodrama or cliché.

Joaquin Phoenix (RESERVATION ROAD, WALK THE LINE) gives a magnetic performance as the emotionally wounded Leonard, a man trying to find his way between the options of comfort and passion, safety and risk, as embodied by the two loves of the title, Sandra and Michelle.

Something in his recent past has left Leonard scarred and scared, living with his parents again, and struggling to keep his head above water. With his father, the affectionately understated Moni Moshonov, preparing to sell the family business, Leonard’s future seems decided: set, protected and utterly without surprise. As the daughter of his boss-to-be, Vinessa Shaw’s Sandra attracts Leonard with her stability, gentleness, and her representation of the familiar contours and routines of family and culture.

But at the same time Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, IRON MAN) is clattering into Leonard’s life: all stylish blonde energy, unfamiliar allure, and the same damaged humanity he knows in himself. So Leonard finds himself split between the two women and the possibilities they represent. Sandra, with her connections to family, work and tradition, would undoubtedly be good for and to him. But in Michelle he sees the opportunity to protect someone else, instead of being protected, to take risks, and to grow up again in a way that his life with his parents doesn’t allow.

That parental protection, particularly from his mother, Ruth, (Isabella Rossellini, THE ACCIDENTAL HUSBAND, INFAMOUS) is both support and constraint. Having seen him through a devastating low, she is understandably concerned for him. But Leonard is visibly chafing at the renewal of ties and dependance on people who only want the best for him. What becomes a sort of second adolescence is the backdrop for Leonard’s, and the film’s, major conflict.

In a movie full of humane, evocative performances, perhaps the only major flaw is the limited time given to Sandra. The emotional drama in Michelle’s life flares over Leonard’s attention, forcing Sandra into a shadow. But the characters are so fully fleshed out and believable, and the direction so smoothly evocative of Leonard’s scarred world view, that this is an ultimately winning and deeply satisfying story which explores the things that are gained and are given up in the pursuit of love.

5 out of 6 stars

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