It's White Nights with the two stories compressed to one: (1) boy who falls in love with girl who cries to him over the other man she loves, and (2) that girl caught between the sexy jerk, and the supportive bland-guy (boy from story 1). Here boy and girl are one character, Joaquin Phoenix, a suicidal mope-about who never meant to participate in any stories at all. He's the emotional crutch for a girl caught between a love interest and a nice guy (him); he's caught between a love interest (her) and a nice girl who's just there to listen.
Hot stuff, except that every scene, suffuse with Joaquin Phoenix hiding in his room (lights off) and erupting, screaming on the street, is, amidst the golden interiors, grimly, grimily—and deliberately—uncomfortable (movies don’t come more Jewish). At Cannes, Americans panned the film because the dialogue’s bad: true if you take it at face value; which is like taking Albert Brooks’ dialogue at face value, instead of as a cringe-causing “parody” (that’s not) of what people say to each other for the sake of saying something to each other, what stupid jokes people pass the time making during dinner, or when they run into each other on the subway. But the point of the dialogue throughout is its inadequacy to express anything; Gray is an actor’s director—he is in their service, and lights in flesh tones—so the real expressions are all facial. As in the old melodramas, but also as in real life, Gray’s actors speak in grins, down-turned eyes, and the blind, drunken groping of people sick of being themselves.
Because it’s a film in which nobody is quite sure what to say or how to say it. Two Lovers starts like an Albert Brooks film starring Jerry Lewis, here Phoenix (easily mistaken for normal by everyone within the film), a man-child who’s moved back in with his parents and only knows how to communicate with the world by crying for its attention. As it turns out, he’s a photographer frightened as hell of dealing with the outside world, and, with little ado, Gray again and again shows him hiding and watching from shadows and behind closed doors; the main points of reference here are Rear Window and, to a lesser extent, Vertigo, those films about men who would rather watch the world as distant fantasy universe, but find their fantasies springing into full-blooded life. “I feel like I never really saw you before,” Phoenix’s fantasy (Gwyneth Paltrow, superbly un-superb) tells him after they finally hook up, and what she means is that the central character of the movie is just ficelli to her drama (not only does she have two lovers—her other lover does too; none of them really care about each other’s dilemmas). But then he tells her he’s never seen her either (and she begins to strip). Comfortably set in a world of text messaging and drunk-dialing, Two Lovers captures something that obsessed Hitchcock, but who else?: how people relegate each other to simplified roles in their lives (demons, confidants, other fantasy objects), without seeing what’s really there. Even as they watch and watch and watch.
The film ends with a gesture of resignation and redemption as a guy who’s never wanted to live starts to—but the irony is that he doesn’t see his saving angel as anything but a way out, another girl that fits in with the scheme of his plans. Vinessa Shaw, for her part (in her part), indicates there’s more to her than the supporting character (in all senses) she’s written as, and early on Gray ends a shot-reverse-shot on her dead-on, Ozu-like, as she looks at the camera and grins. Because she’s the only character with enough perspective to laugh (also Ozu-like), and realize, as Phoenix’s character ultimately must, that not everyone’s worth taking as seriously as we’d like to take them. Hers is the character happy not to worry, and to settle for what she can get—this is why she offers both resignation and redemption, in offering a philosophy that doesn’t fixate, but just moves on. At the end of Two Lovers, everyone moves on.
Yet mostly, it’s a film of paralysis. If Henry IV was the model for Gray’s problematic, fantastic We Own the Night, Hamlet (alluded to) seems the source this time. Talking about life and living life become, as in James novels, mutually exclusive. The real drama’s in the anticipation. Because like Hamlet, L. B. Jefferies, and Jerry Lewis, Phoenix’s Leonard Kraditor is, ultimately—if not at the end—just an actor afraid to act, undone by self-consciousness. He’s one of Shakespeare’s or Tashlin’s fools.