Most of the downbeat romantic drama Two Lovers transpires in the timeless corners of Brooklyn, at mom-and-pop dry cleaners or the kind of blocky apartments where neighbors call to each other from opposite windows while jazz music plays from an unseen source. When we first notice cell phones or DVDs in Two Lovers, they almost seem like contemporary anachronisms that snuck into a period piece set a half-century ago.
Director and co-writer James Gray places Two Lovers very much in the present, but gives the film the black-and-white shadings of an old-fashioned social realist script, pitched somewhere between the 1950s plays of Arthur Miller and Ernest Borgnine's love-among-the-losers film Marty. Gray deserves credit for trying to give his class-conscious romantic triangle a grounding in character and real-world texture, and the cast clearly takes its work seriously. But Two Lovers ultimately seems stuck in a bygone decade.
In Brighton Beach, unmarried Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the clutch of his Jewish immigrant parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov). He works at his father's dry cleaners while vacillating between his dream of being a photographer and his suicidal tendencies following his canceled wedding engagement. Meanwhile, his elder Kraditor and another family, with matchmaking machinations worthy of a royal dynasty, push Leonard toward friendly, buxom Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw). The parents do everything to hook the two up, short of turning down the beds and turning up the Barry White.
Leonard finds himself bedazzled by his new neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). When she walks into Chez Kraditor not long after they first meet, light literally shines on her long, blond hair, emphasizing that she's a Shiksa Goddess out of central casting. Leonard gravitates away from Sandra's sweet availability and toward Michelle's irresponsible, self-destructive glamour.
In one plot point, Sandra's parents cajole Leonard into shooting "arty" black-and-white snapshots of their son's bar mitzvah. The manhood ceremony has symbolic implications for Leonard, who's in his own state of arrested development. It's not clear whether following his heart into a doomed relationship with Michelle or accepting stultifying stability with Sandra presents the "grown-up" choice, but refusing to choose simply confirms his immaturity.
Two Lovers marks Phoenix's third collaboration with Gray, following the crime dramas The Yards and We Own the Night. He digs into Leonard's character with all the mumbly, Brando-esque method he can muster and suggests that family ties and bipolar disorders have blunted the man's true passions. Phoenix's best moments come when he breakdances with charming amateurishness at a club, and jokingly engages in some backseat rapping: "L- to the E-O-N-A-R-D!" Phoenix comes across as such a cagey, knowing performer that he can overplay his hand when attempting naive man-child characters. In Two Lovers, as in Signs and even parts of Walk the Line, he makes his characters' slowed-down thought processes seem more like evidence of mental impairment than simple innocence.
The male supporting actors tend to offer one-note performances, including Elias Koteas as Michelle's rich, douchey married boyfriend. The women fare better. Rossellini's slumping posture seems a world away from her off-screen life as cinema and fashion royalty. Paltrow gives Michelle such a charming, girl-next-door friendliness that it's all too easy to see how people would get caught up in her flailing, self-absorbed drama. It's unfortunate that the script denies Shaw a character beyond Nice Jewish Girl, since she makes Sandra seem so bright and together that we wonder what she sees in Leonard, apart from a vehicle for her maternal instincts.
Leonard's second-act attempts to juggle two women frequently border on door-slamming farce – at one point he hides in Michelle's bedroom when her boyfriend makes an unexpected visit. Gray's ambitions prove all too serious, and he seems more motivated by the pretentious staging of rooftop confrontations, with actors emoting while turned away from the camera, or half-obstructed by brick walls. One hopes that Phoenix is only punking us with his claim that he wants to abandon acting for a rap career, because Two Lovers isn't much of a swan song.