Two Lovers

Starring: Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw and Isabella Rossellini. Directed by James Gray
110 mins
Rating: Rated M (coarse language and sex scenes)

Any film that begins with the central character attempting suicide is a fair bet to be a bit on the melodramatic side, but director James Gray studiously skirts the obvious in this offbeat romantic drama about thirtysomethings, set with palpable atmosphere in the Brighton Beach district of Brooklyn in the late 1990s.

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) is the man rescued from drowning. We don’t find out exactly what caused him to jump off the pier into the bay, but sotto voce mutterings by his parents (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) allude to his having tried previously to end his life and to what they describe as his “bi-polar problem”.

Leonard had been engaged, but her family called it off when they learned of his condition. He dreams of being a photographer but for the moment he is living with his parents and working in the dry-cleaning business that they are on the verge of merging with the Cohens, another Jewish family in the same trade.  It seems that part of the merger deal is to encourage a romance between Leonard and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the attractive Cohen daughter. There is nothing sinister about this. The Kraditors and the Cohens are good people, trying to do the best for their two shy children.

So far so good. Leonard and Sandra hit it off nicely. But then his chance encounter with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a new neighbour in his apartment block, throws a spanner in the works. Immediately smitten by her beauty and friendliness, he becomes something of a confidant to Michelle. She has relationship problems of her own and is grateful for someone to whom she can unburden herself and turn for advice.

She is skating on thin emotional ice herself, and it is clear that, in view of Leonard’s parlous state, the two of them becoming involved has the potential for a possibly fatal outcome.  Sandra, who is stable and genuinely wants to look after Leonard, would be much better for him. But Michelle casts a powerful spell. Which way will he turn?

The screenplay by director Gray and Ric Menellos carefully examines the fragility of the human condition when Cupid fires his darts. The story and the characters are not exaggerated, and neither is it a particularly moving film in the sense of bringing a lump to the throat or a tear to the eye. Rather, Gray adopts a measured, reserved and realistic approach, and the drama is all the more impressive for it. Isabella Rossellini, for example, plays against the way Jewish mothers are generally portrayed on the screen. She uses her wonderful stillness to underscore in masterly fashion the mother’s aching understanding of and sympathy for her son.

The acting throughout is excellent, helped by a script in which small talk is rendered with effortless ease and realism.

Roadshow Out June 4

Mr. Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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