Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two Lovers

It made a lot more sense for me to work than to go to a movie last Friday. I mean, I’d just gotten back from a month in Florida, I’m way behind, and I’d hired a sitter for the day. Isn’t that a scenario that spells catch-up?

But I woke up hearing the sound of tires on wet streets, and rain pattering the window. And it was gray out. It was a day, in short, that just screamed buy a bagel, a ticket, and a huge Diet Coke (in that order) and settle into a nearly empty theater. So, I did. Bliss.

(Bliss except for the peculiar, slightly dead-in-the-eyes, afternoon movie-goer ahead of me at the concession counter, who peppered me with questions as we waited…I let some distance accrue between us as we both made our way to the same theater, to make sure he wasn’t going to suggest we sit together. Shiver.)

So, Two Lovers, a movie that was suggested by several other movie fans.

It’s a lover’s quad, I guess. On the one hand, there’s the depressive, and, in her words, “fucked up,” Michele, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and her boyfriend, the much older, cringe-inducing, married-lawyer boyfriend, Ronald (Elias Koteas).

And then there’s Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), the oafish, endearing, slightly unstable son of Jewish immigrants who own a dry cleaning business in deep dark Brooklyn. Leonard’s heart was broken by his former fiancée, who ditched him (I’ll let you find out why). He’s home with his parents after a stint in an institution, trying to put his life back together.

He seems like a hopeless case, frankly, until he finds himself in the spotlight of a woman’s gaze—at which point he turns into an endearing clown who wants to please, amuse and entertain. And he does. The transformation is striking. And though it’s jarring, Phoenix makes it believable. Here is a man who comes alive at the prospect of love.

Leonard is torn between Michele, whom he’s technically friends with, but really pines for, and Sandra, the beautiful daughter of family friends, who doesn’t give off even the slightest whiff of crazy. Obviously Sandra is the right choice. Even Leonard knows that, occasionally blowing off Michele’s histrionics to focus on Sandra.

But crazy, as many of us know (okay, maybe just those of us with a checkered relationship history) has a strange allure. And, of course, it’s Gwynie, who looks like Gwynie in a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar for most of the movie. Kind of hard to turn your back on that, I imagine. Plus she’s needy in a way that lights up that male I’ll take-care-of-you gene. (Leonard lights up the female version of this gene in Sandra.)

The performances in this movie are really good. I loved Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mom. She didn’t need dialogue. It was all in her beautiful, worried, aging face. Phoenix is great. (I really do hope he hasn’t gone off the rails.) And Gwyneth seems to have a knack for depressive characters. (Though, with the exception of a gum-smacking, big hair club scene, she seemed a little too pretty and polished to me.)

It’s a solid movie, though a bit like an emotional horror flick (“Oh, no, don’t go in the basement/answer Michele’s call!”) Nowhere was I as horrified, however, as at the end—which, I lift my hat to the director, James Gray—I could not predict.

I think what troubles me is that I don’t ultimately know what it all MEANS. Is it, I thought, as I left the movie (after checking that dead-in-the-eyes was gone) about the lies we tell ourselves, and the compromises we accept, in love and relationships? Or is it merely a portrait of some hapless attempts at love?

Either way, it rang unnervingly true.


nancytik said...

i was quite impressed by joaquin's performance in this movie and gwyneth didn't annoy me as much as she usually does. debated the ending with the people i saw it with--i thought that that marriage might have as good a chance as any of succeeding, since certainly the relationship with GP wouldn't have. but others thought it was a tragedy in the making.
anyhow, after seeing the movie i googled joaquin and came across the clip of his recent letterman appearance. my suspicion is that that guy in the movie theater who accosted you was actually joaquin himself.

Elizabeth said...

my thoughts exactly re: gwyneth. i sort of agree with both sides of the debate you found yourself in...maybe just as good a chance as any, but tragic in the lie of its foundation. poor sandra....thinking he'd done all that planning/ring shopping/crying for her. ouch. i should google the letterman thing, but i'm afraid i'd find it too painful to watch. if the guy in front of me in line had looked just a tad like phoenix i might agree with you.....but, ugh. i don't even want to call up a mental picture. i'm sure he's very nice and harmless, i just wanted him to go away.