Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), We Own the Night (2007), The Immigrant (2013): Written and directed by James Gray, these four films are occupied by characters living extraordinary lives. Yet despite their depiction of an exceptional existence—covering cold-blooded killers, cunning gangsters, ruthless hit men, and the perilous plight of early 20th century immigrants—Gray's cinematic worlds are consistently unassuming and relatable. No matter how high the drama or how dire the circumstances, there is a palpable attention to detail, in character and setting, which attains a surprising level of modest believability. Two Lovers (2009), his fourth feature film, likewise achieves this authenticity, but it is also something of an exemption to his body of work.
Anchored by Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard Kraditor, in what was the actor's third straight film with Gray (it's now been four with The Immigrant), the characters in Two Lovers are essentially ordinary folk. This world is one of salad dressing bottles left on the dinner table, upright ironing boards sitting out in the open at home, and fathers kicking back watching Benny Hill. Real, regular people; real, regular lives. There is the recurrent New York milieu (Brooklyn in this case) which is always rendered remarkably absorbing by the Queens borough-born Gray, but this New York, as opposed to the city in those aforementioned films, is neither threatening, nor overwhelming, nor unattractive. This is a New York not bursting with action, crime, and conspiracy. This is a New York where people just live.
As Two Lovers begins, Leonard plunges fully clothed into SheepsheadBay. Is it suicide or something else? We learn that Leonard tried to kill himself once before, but we also discover that he's quite impulsive. No sooner does he descend into the water then he is back up to the surface, crying for help. Once rescued, he denies he jumped. Rather, he says, he fell. So what was it? A half-hearted suicide attempt or simply something to do? It's a brief opener, but it reveals much about Leonard. As the film progresses, his actions will be marked by a similar recklessness, followed by an unplanned outcome, concluding with an acceptance and a moving on. Hasty and occasionally juvenile though he may be, Leonard remains steadfastly resilient. With little foresight, he repeatedly jumps into life and whatever comes his way. He does so heedlessly, foolishly, and passionately, but he also does so earnestly.
Still reeling from a broken engagement years ago, the unstable Leonard works at his father's dry cleaning business, and it is through said business that he meets Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of another, more successful, Jewish dry cleaner. The fathers are planning a business merger, and the families involved see the coinciding potential for a more personal union between the two children. Around the same time, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young woman who lives nearby and is troubled by a violent father, a history of substance abuse, and a stagnant relationship with a married man.
The conflict that emerges from this love triangle comes down to caring. For Leonard, there's an attraction to both Sandra and Michelle—an equal physical attraction, it would seem, but emotionally and psychologically leaning toward the latter. What ultimately does Leonard in is the volley back and forth between being cared for and wanting to care. The stable Sandra is admirably eager to love Leonard unconditionally and to tend to his erratic behavior (Leonard is hampered with bipolar disorder; Michelle says she has ADHD; Sandra works at Pfizer—collectively a curious ailment and medication correlation). But Leonard doesn't want to be a charity case. Yet, at the time, he is drawn to Michelle for similar reasons. High maintenance and impulsive to a fault, Michelle is Leonard's own compassionate cause; he wants to comfort someone perhaps even more distressed than he is. Together, the two women befit Leonard's personal frailty, positioning at opposite ends of his desire for security and his own considerate nature.
Thanks in no small part to Joaquín Baca-Asay's cinematography, Two Lovers exudes a visual expression of tone and temperature that mirrors the various settings and their respective connotations. Interiors glow with yellows and oranges, a warmth that reflects that of the characters, particularly Leonard's father and mother (played by Moni Moshonov and the always-radiant Isabella Rossellini). Their apartment is instantly comfortable—a place where one wants to be. Mother Ruth is especially hospitable. Upon meeting Michelle for the first time and being told the young woman is their neighbor, Ruth responds with a jovial "Hello neighbor." And the relationship between her and Leonard is one of pleasant maternal familiarity: she still picks up his messes as if he were a child, and when she doesn't leave his room fast enough while he’s changing, Leonard jokingly threatens to show her "the world" as he gets ready to shower. On the other hand, in the cold and damp exteriors, the winter climate is in bone chilling blue, with the outside being far more difficult and unforgiving. It's no coincidence that some of the most emotionally positive moments happen in the apartment (Leonard's meeting of Sandra, their later lovemaking, the film's conclusion) while the more upsetting moments (times of abandonment, loneliness, and heartbreak) occur outdoors.
While Gwyneth Paltrow may give the most surprising performance in Two Lovers, acting like she hadn't in years and hasn't since, there's no denying that the film hinges on the stellar Joaquin Phoenix. Watching the film today, and knowing it would be the last film before his elaborate performance piece that ultimately wound up encapsulated in Casey Affleck’s I'm Still Here (2010), it's clear that Phoenix was shifting as an actor. His role in the films that have followed, terrific performances all, are nevertheless bordering on becoming something of a standard type, for better or worse: the idiosyncratic, muddled, and disheveled outsider. This characterization started in Two Lovers, where Phoenix is appealing despite his eccentricities, it dissipated somewhat with The Immigrant, and it has since picked back up with Woody Allen’s Irrational Man (2015). Phoenix plays Leonard with no discernable filter. He is temperamental and frequently awkward (see his cringe-inducing impromptu rap and break-dancing routine for example, which, still seems to go over pretty well with the ladies), but he has an undeniable charm and an endearing sense of humor.
What's most refreshing about this "coming of age story," as Gray has called Two Lovers, is that it's not dealing with high schoolers acting like thirty-somethings, nor are they thirty-somethings acting like high schoolers. These characters might have their issues, but they're generally average issues, problems appropriate to their age and sociocultural standing. There's no posturing or exaggeration of concern, no worries (or lack of) that don't ring true.
Co-written with Ric Menello and loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky's "White Nights," Two Lovers is equal parts poignant melodrama and carefully considered art film, without any pretention whatsoever. Here more than in any of his other films, Gray displays a Cassavetes-like knack for capturing character quirks and naturalistic behavior, but he does so with a markedly more controlled aesthetic, with rigorous framing and a delicate balance of light and color. In other words, Two Lovershas the improvisational intimacy of Cassavetes without the formal chaos. It's tense, moving, and complex, yet it is also, as Gray puts it, "sedate," taking in the emotion without boiling over, emerging both minimalist and exuberant in all the right places.