Not to be confused with star Joaquin Phoenix’s current headline grabbing split between his passion for acting and music, Two Lovers delves into the quirky life of a mentally unstable Brooklyn man who never got around to leaving home, and his dysfunctional relationships with both females and family. Director James Gray, who excels best at capturing the extraordinary in unremarkable bottom feeder urban lives, as in Little Odessa, returns to that scene of thwarted existence lived out in quiet desperation as Two Lovers unfolds in the emotional prison of seedy Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
The film immediately sets its anxious, muted tone in a clash between crushed yearnings and suffocating daily routine as Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) dutifully makes his dull rounds delivering dry cleaning from his father’s store where he works, but decides to end it all instead by jumping off an overpass into the water below. Rescued by a stranger whom he doesn’t bother to thank, a glum Leonard returns home just in time for dinner in the depressing knowledge that he can’t seem to be successful at anything in life, not even suicide.
It soon becomes apparent that a smothering Jewish mom and borderline child stalker (Isabella Rossellini) is going to get the blame, as she frets over her evidently disturbed thirtysomething son and whether or not he’s taking his meds. And who still happens to live in his childhood bedroom in their cramped apartment, where he’s been sulking ever since a failed romance. Mom is also currently playing matchmaker, nudging Leonard into an unwelcome relationship with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of a business colleague of his dad (Moni Moshonov).
Meanwhile, a stunning new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) catches Leonard’s eye, and honing his exceedingly awkward, childlike people skills, he follows her on the subway one morning, engaging her in a conversation by pretending to be going downtown to work as well. A similarly troubled Michelle adopts the hopelessly smitten and soon disappointed and increasingly frustrated Leonard as a platonic confidante and appendage to her life. And he learns to his dismay that she’s suffering miserably in an affair with a rich married lawyer, who is not making good on promises to leave his wife for her.
Steeped in the dense aromas of moth balls and chicken soup with the odd effect of both dulling and disturbing the senses, this authentically crafted, even if at times overly sentimental slice of life mood piece is filled with tender moments and occasional touches of macabre humor. Though what such a dazzling hottie as Gwyneth is doing moping and slumming around in the oppressive shadows of outer Brooklyn, is one matzah ball that’s hard to swallow.
But this is without doubt a custom fit character for edgy wild card Joaquin, a laundry drone who gets taken to the cleaners in this love the one you’re with sordid triangle, where a grownup romantic adventure is the same as running away from home. Two Lovers, where Mom makes three.