Life turns around quite suddenly and floods him with options.
Falling for someone before actually meeting them is all about sight and symbols, not an easy thing to put on screen. But “Two Lovers” captures the troubled trajectory of such a romance in wrenching detail with a cast completely in tune with each other and with the story they are filming. Gwyneth Paltrow, Joaquin Phoenix, Isabella Rossellini, and others are all exactly right for their roles. Just sit back and prepare to be pulled into the story by James Gray’s fine direction and an eclectic, moving score.
Leonard is a young man toying with suicide because life is just too formless, but he doesn’t really want to die – if only he could figure out how to live. He is living with his parents Ruth and Reuben (Rossellini and Mona Moshonov) in a dark Brooklyn apartment building down the street from the dry cleaning store where he and his father both work. The father is about to merge his business with a like establishment owned by a man who has a daughter, Sandra, who both fathers consider a perfect match for Leonard. She is played, wonderfully, by Vinessa Shaw.
By happenstance Leonard sees the beautiful blonde who has moved in upstairs with her own father. Few people can fuel a young man’s fantasies better than Gwyneth Paltrow’s Michelle. Leonard sees her in the hallway and loses his heart to her on the spot. They discover that they can chat with each other across the building’s open courtyard from their windows. Michelle slides toward sisterly affection while Leonard drowns silently in a full case of sudden love. He listens loyally to her complaints about the troubles she is having in an affair with a married man who, of course, says he will leave his wife to marry her. She even asks the poor besotted Leonard to have dinner with her and the lover, the master lawyer, Mr. Black. In the restaurant, Leonard tries to drink his Brandy Alexander through the stirrer.
Mr. Black is an emotional danger to Michelle and Michelle poses exactly the same threat to Leonard whose emotions have passed into obsession; he jumps at the ring of the phone. Let’s run away together. In two scenes wonderful created by Isabella Rossellini, Leonard’s mother reads his mind and says nothing. If you love movies, you will love her performance. It is subtle and beautiful.
Vinessa Shaw’s Sandra is not dangerous; she is also neither dull nor ordinary. She is a smart, caring, authentic woman. Suddenly, the formerly suicidal Leonard has two women in his life. Gwyneth Paltrow, playing against type, is excellent if not sympathetic. Joaquin Phoenix makes Leonard a fine man overwhelmed at first by the drabness of his life which turns around quite suddenly to flood him with options. Watching him flail his way to sanity is intriguing. When you put an entire cast of major acting and directing talent in an essentially small story, wondrous things can happen.
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