1921. An innocent immigrant woman is tricked into a life of burlesque and vaudeville until a dazzling magician tries to save her and reunite her with her sister who is being held in the confines of Ellis Island.
Leonard Kraditor is a burned-out case, living with his immigrant parents after his fiancée left him, helping out at their Brooklyn dry cleaners, taking photographs, at loose ends, suicidal. In quick succession, he meets two women: Sandra, the daughter of his parents' business associates, frank, direct, sensual, Jewish like Leonard; and, his neighbor Michelle, mercurial, rootless, fun, blond, unattainable. Michelle is in love with a married man and cries on Leonard's shoulder; Sandra wants to save him. Is Leonard willing to risk losing Sandra's fidelity for the moments Michelle's moods swing toward him? Can this end well? Written by
James Gray's latest film tells the tale of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who had a problematic break-up with his fiancée two years ago, and has since been heading down a suicidal road. 4-months into living back home with his anxious parents (played by Moni Moshonov and Isabella Rossellini) and helping out at his father's dry-cleaning business, Leonard is introduced to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a sweet daughter of his father's business friend. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, Leonard has moments of true spark with her, and you can see his eyes changing away from the torment inside. A woman is surely the right thing for Leonard, as he carves through the days with a worn-out heart and a mind in loneliness. Soon after meeting Sandra, he befriends Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beautiful but messed-up girl that's dating her married boss (played by Elias Koteas). With her, Leonard sees an escape, and a burning romance. Leonard's mind is now set on two women, and he finds himself torn between them.
James Gray hadn't really impressed me with his earlier films, for me they all lacked out on the intensity and became standard crime-thrillers. With his latest melodramatic romance, he really surprised me; he does a caring job directing the three performers, and he tells a strange and tender story. The music of the film is Jewish guitar-instrumentals that are carefully intertwined, but most of the film has got a blanket of quiet bleakness, and it's covering every little corner.
The performances of Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are great, and although the two never share screen-space, director Gray naturally and carefully shifts between the two lives Leonard is living, and so the two of them add lovely pieces to the story. But it's in-between the double relationship the film and its protagonist is living, the film has to connect, and it couldn't have been done better than by Joaquin Phoenix. Leonard is a suicidal depressive that enters human-bounding and the give & receive of it, and this is a very difficult character to portray - but just look at Phoenix, he is phenomenal; the incredible naturalism of it shows Phoenix in the performance of his career.
The melancholy of the film doesn't make it for the dominant audience, but I've never even cared a bit for that, and it's a delight that romance on screen can be thrown upon like this. 'Two Lovers' is a small film with a heart that's full of rare atmosphere, the form of it is tearing and in center, a superb Joaquin Phoenix.
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