You could almost say that, like the protagonist of his new Two Lovers, James Gray still lives with his parents. Partly because the outer-boro worlds of Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night and now Two Lovers find archaic-seeming pockets of a receding residential, working-class, neighborhood-organized New York — and partly because of his reverent, almost innocent commitment to traditional genre structures and storytelling styles.
Which is not to say that he's a naif — in fact he's actually one of the sharpest, most articulate guys making movies in America today. And much more cynical than his classical, openhearted film grammar might imply. We Own the Night was brotherly-love cops-and-robbers drama that actually seemed to at least in part condemn patriarchal social institutions and familial/social obligations: when Joaquin Phoenix quits his job as a nightclub manager to join the NYPD, it's kind of a tragedy.
Two Lovers is, we're told, loosely adapted from Dostoevsky's "White Nights," but it actually comes off as the kind of life experience that would later provide the emotional underpinnings of a genre movie like We Own the Night.
For the two opposing gravitational pulls tugging at Joaquin Phoenix — star there as well as here — replace his WOtN girlfriend Eva Mendes with Two Lovers' shiksa goddess neighbor Gwyneth Paltrow, and brother Mark Wahlberg with Vinessa Shaw, daughter of his father's business partner.
Still, despite his thematic sophistication, you do group Gray with other visually fluent primitivists — say, though this is hyperbolic, Sergio Leone — whose articulacy seems roughly proportionate to the scale of a given scene: operatic is fine, while the more intimate registers leave you perpetually on the verge of cringing. (The French love Gray even more than they love Michael Cimino.) There are some hiccoughs in this resolutely human-sized melodrama: Gray at times tries to convey emotion in obvious gestures (Paltrow loves opera; Phoenix goes out and buys an opera CD), leads his characters into avert-your-eyes awkwardness (yes, Phoenix raps), or exposes his subtext by having them talk an awful lot about their feelings. But it works, here, because maybe these kinds of people really are this naked, really are this awkwardly earnest and unguarded. Phoenix's performance here recalls the Marlon Brando school of scratch-and-sniff naturalism; he's a raw nerve. And speaking of which: Two Lovers uses a New York winter as well as, and to similar purposes as, On the Waterfront — Joaquin Baca-Asay's subtly lit gray palette and Gray's compositions create a full, biting-cold world for Phoenix's emotional isolation.
So this is exactly the thing, Gray's ear for dialogue may come off corny, but his eye for detail is marvelous. I'm not entirely convinced by Paltrow in Brighton Beach: through no part of her own she comes off as a bit of a fairy tale construction, even in her clubbing clothes she still seems more Gramercy or Yorkville to me. But the local color is so gradiated — check the stationary bike stashed behind a worn, homey overstuffed brown couch in the film's final shot, an almost hilarious bit of offhand sociological genius, and, in context, absolutely heartbreaking.