A young man throws himself off a pier, into the icy waters off Brooklyn. So goes the beginning sequence of Two Lovers, opening tomorrow at Cinéma du Parc and AMC Forum 22. This is one of those “cry for help” suicide attempts, since the pier is crowded with passers-by. Leonard, the young man played by Joaquim Phoenix, returns to his parents’ home where he is staying, sopping wet and freezing, but very much alive.
Leonard is depressed, though we’re not sure what the causes of his malady are, except that he is suffering emotional stress after breaking up with his fiancée. She and Leonard carry the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, a deadly illness their children would have inherited, so her family intervened to call off the engagement. Family plays a big role in this film, and lucky for Leonard, his is extremely sympathetic. His Russian-Jewish father runs a dry cleaner’s, and his mother is devoted to both her husband and her only son. The family is willing to wait and nudge Leonard slowly towards normality as the film unfolds.
Of course, they want their boychick to be happy, and to that end they introduce him to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Mr. Cohen, a businessman who wants to buy the family’s business and fold it into his larger dry-cleaning empire, providing Leonard with a future job in the process.
Leonard certainly is one of the more attractive depressives you will meet, but after all, this is Hollywood. Phoenix does an excellent job portraying the hesitant, self-conscious Leonard, who manages to be attractive to girls (after all, he’s a photographer, and artistic types get the girl in this film), and inept and confused at the same time. Confused, because though Sandra is clearly available, he falls for Michelle, an abused, dependent blond (Gwyneth Paltrow) who obviously has issues, or as they say in the movies, a whole lot of “back-story.”
Michelle lives in Leonard’s family’s building, across the courtyard, because the married man she’s in love with is paying the rent on her apartment there. The poor guy, besides being married, is a fancy lawyer, and doesn’t have the time it would take to maintain Michelle, so she has plenty of opportunity to go clubbing and do club drugs. Leonard sees in her a kindred wounded spirit, someone he can take care of.
So the stage is set for Leonard’s decision. He wants Michelle, whose abused persona is attractive to him, but at the same time there’s Sandra, who accepts him as he is, and clearly cares about him. But Leonard, to the film’s credit, remains a true depressive – that is, someone who has great difficulty taking action, making a decision, forming an emotional attachment and following through on it. On New Year’s Eve, the decision (Michelle or Sandra?) will be made for him with the help of some Hollywood-style magic thinking that will have skeptics shaking their heads.
Director James Gray, whose past films include The Yards and We Own the Night, gets an excellent performance from Phoenix. He should also win applause from people concerned with the depiction of mental disorders in the movies. His portrait of Russian-Jewish Brooklyn is affectionate, never saccharine. His film is a comedy, which means the right pair of lovers must be united in the end, even if that includes doing damage to reality.
Two Lovers opens Friday April 3 at Cinéma du Parc and AMC Forum 22.