Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw, in 'Two Lovers'

Dir. James Gray
(2009, R, 109 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

The ending of Two Lovers does not come as a surprise, as might be the intent of other films about love triangles, which seek to divide our sympathies and confound our expectations. Explains writer-director James Gray in the DVD audio commentary, he hopes his film is predictable, but not in the way of formula films. He echoes exactly the feeling I had when watching it for the first time. There’s an inevitability in the fates of its characters, whom the screenplay observes so well that their behavior moves us, but doesn’t surprise us.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Leonard Kraditor, a troubled New Yorker who has returned to his parents’ home on the heels of a broken engagement. This is the role Phoenix was promoting earlier in the year when he had his supposed breakdown, quitting acting to become a rap singer, growing a beard, and making inexplicable public appearances like his infamous interview with David Letterman. This may prove to be merely fodder for an upcoming mockumentary, which would make it all the more unfortunate that the actor’s public spectacle overshadowed what is a fine film and one of his best performances.

Leonard is drawn to two women: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend, whom his Jewish immigrant parents approve of, and Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a beguiling upstairs neighbor who is having an affair with a married man and may have had trouble with drugs. Considering the two women, my sympathies were not divided at all. Sandra is the healthier relationship, the more grounded in reality, the more stabilizing for Leonard, who is bipolar and has attempted suicide enough times that his mother (played perfectly by Isabella Rossellini) warns his father, “I think he tried again,” when their son comes home dripping wet from “falling” into Sheepshead Bay. Leonard cannot see how right she is for him because she is bound up in familial pressures and a life path he’s determined to get away from. She tells him she wants to take care of him, when all he wants is to feel like he can take care of himself.

He doesn’t see how wrong Michelle is for him because he wants to fix her, which makes him feel less like someone who needs to be fixed. She draws him in and pushes him away, all the while stumbling through an emotional battlefield largely of her own making. She can scarcely take care of herself, and together they form a bond of co-dependency. I want to yell “No! No! No!” at her when she, perhaps unwittingly, pulls him back into her orbit, and at him when he lets her.

Perhaps you will feel differently. You may bring your biases as I have brought mine and decide that Sandra represents stifling obligation. But Shaw gives a performance that radiates warmth, compassion, and steadiness of character; she plays Sandra as such a force of goodness that if she thinks she can fix you, you hand her a wrench.

Paltrow is just as good as Michelle, who is Sandra’s complete opposite: scattered, ruled by emotions, clouded of judgment. The actress at first seems miscast: too aristocratic to play a naive Brooklynite who believes the promises of her married lover, her edges too clean to play a woman so frayed. I can’t point to precisely the moment where she finally convinces me, but we eventually come to understand her as an unattainable fantasy for Leonard, a beautiful damsel in a high tower waiting for her rescuer. But he is not Prince Charming, and she is not Cinderella. Their scenes together are sad, because we can see through their illusions.

Some films know their characters — just know them, so well that we never need to question it. Gray’s screenplay, co-written by Ric Menello, is one of clear-eyed understanding, simple and direct. Everything is character. Nothing is contrivance. We often grieve at the decisions of the characters, but the heart wants what it wants, even when it should want something else. They say love is blind …