Two Lovers is so rich that at first I dismissed its title as the film’s one mistake, an unimaginatively obvious story pitch. And yet, like the whole of James Gray’s masterpiece, it’s deceptively simple and strangely ambiguous. The title can refer to the couple of women involved with Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a suicidal thirty-something still living at his parents’ Brighton Beach apartment; or else it can especially refer to his bond with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the bewildered beauty across the way. While Michelle remains elusive because of her illicit relationship with a married boss, Leonard’s Russian Jewish parents (Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) encourage him to see Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of the man buying pop’s drying cleaning business and setting Leonard up for the future. Sandra, though also beautiful, inspires little of the passion that does impulsive Michelle.
Gray has previously directed lean, inventive Brooklyn-set crime dramas focusing on conflicting familial and romantic loyalties, as in 2007’s remarkable We Own the Night. With Two Lovers he has distilled that emotional content in a radically different yet likewise familiar generic framework — the married boss, for example, is a pompous ass — but he discovers deeper dimensions in neighborhood detail, intimate compositions, melancholic lighting, and a dramatic commitment to following a fated situation’s trajectory from irrational desire to bittersweet compromise. There’s also Gray’s lead. If he stays true to his word, Two Lovers will be the last screen performance from Phoenix, inexplicably set to embark on a music career, possibly as a rapper. (On the town with Michelle, Leonard drops some brief, boastful science, but it works in context of the character’s giddiness; YouTube, on the other hand, provides cringe-inducing evidence of a bearded, sunglassed, Phish-hatted Phoenix’s nonexistent mic skills.) Let’s hope it’s an Andy Kaufmanesque stunt, because he’s squandering a talent that has with Gray’s film reached maturation. Phoenix possesses the preternatural handsomeness of his late older brother but also an unsettling, unpredictable sadness River only vaguely approached, and he puts it to use in Two Lovers by fluctuating, depending on his lover, between reluctant inwardness and fumbling extroversion, both attitudes tinged with arrested self-regard and love-struck naiveté.
Refusing to court sentimentality but unabashedly evoking compassion, Leonard in Phoenix’s hands becomes a complex, paradoxical being. Gray and Phoenix realize Leonard’s being in ways writ small and large, in the way he rips a sticker on a pole while waiting for Michelle outside a club, in the way he confesses his feelings for her on the roof of their building, a cold gray sky and gusting wind surrounding them as Gray’s camera intensely yet delicately tracks in. It’s one thing to pen such moments and another to direct them: Gray gets the best out of Phoenix because he knows Leonard is as likely to express his confusion in an undisguised pout as in a display of tortured sensitivity, in a hushed phone conversation as in a declaration of love — in other words, in an emotional register varied and surprising. Recent years have seen the American indie timidly dance around the messiness of romance by offering characters superficially eccentric, glibly ironic, or falsely “awkward.” Fitting for a film as devastatingly true as Two Lovers — a film that argues against easily understood emotions and decisions — that its completely real protagonist should equal, and define, the story.