Monday, December 28, 2009

DVD Review: Two Lovers

James Gray's Two Lovers may be the closest thing American movies have to a Dardenne Brothers film. Well, Kelly Reichardt may have something to say about that, but my point is this: finally we have an American film that is willing to be a melodrama and be serious all while being based in reality. It's rare for a film that portrays love in the same way a soap opera might to have the ability to pull me in and believe in the characters. Of course the acting has a lot to do with it, but Gray films his movie in a way that allows that feeling to seep under your skin; it's a slow process, and like a Dardenne film the first 20 minutes are used for the viewer to get their bearings, but once that happens you realize you're watching a film that has deep and heavy themes, but delivered in a stark and truthful way. I was completely enamored with this film. It's one of my favorite movies of 2009.

Gray's film is the antithesis of hipster New York filmmaking. These characters aren't self-aware and they don't seem like they're constantly pining over how they look or how they sound. They wear their emotions on their sleeve like a badge of honor. At first it took me a while to understand why Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) mumbled all the time (a failed suicide attempt that opens the film notwithstanding), his head sunken and swaying from left to right. We learn that Leonard has moved back in with his parents, and those four months prior his fiancée left him and, according to Leonard, he doesn't know where she is. The reason for the break up is all told from Leonard's perspective, and because we see that he's taking pills and obviously seems a tad unstable, we're reluctant to wholly believe his side of the story.

Leonard – as protected by his parents (especially his mother played by Isabella Rossellini) as the clothes in the cellophane bags that Leonard delivers for his family dry cleaning business are – tries to make sense about the world he know finds himself in. This isn't easy, but with the help of some bipolar drugs he makes a go of it, attempting to appease his mother and father by courting the daughter of the family that is buying their dry clean business.

However one day he meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the hall of his apartment building and strikes up a conversation with here. This begins a friendship between the two that is obvious from the onset means more to Leonard than it does to Michelle. She's dealing with being in a relationship with a married man, and he's busy courting Sandra (Vanessa Shaw), and in a nice touch by Gray he uses a cell phone ring tone that represents Michelle being "with" Leonard while he's with Sandra.

Some detractors of the film, and of Gray, say that film is too melodramatic and that Phoenix mumbles and stumbles his way throughout the film. I tend to think those people either don't understand melodrama, or they just have seen so many bad ones they don't recognize when a good melodrama is made. The rest of the film is Leonard trying to juggle things in his not-so-busy life, all while trying to cope with feeling happy for the first time in months. However, thanks to the film's musical score; the subtle and innovative way Gray's cinematographer, Joaquin Baca-Asay, frames the shots; and the attention to detail in the art direction make the film's heavier themes a lighter load.

The interiors of the apartment (dingy), the iciness of the exteriors, and the overall grunginess of the Brooklyn location perfectly evokes the inner feelings and psyche of the film's characters, again, making me think of the Dardenne's: these characters are not only representations of their geography, they're products of it. Unlike a previous melodrama I reviewed (Breaking and Entering) James Gray's Two Lovers perfectly understands how to use mise-en-scene as metaphor. The actors don't have to explain to us that their surroundings symbolize the emotional and mental battles they're facing, nor does Gray's aesthetic (a superbly subtle and cerebral one) call too much attention to the off-kilter world these characters inhabit.

Much like Scorsese's working relationship with a city and a particular actor, James Gray – who has been quietly doing the same thing – evokes the same feeling; however, instead of a manic and young DeNiro perfectly encapsulating the hyperkinetic New York Scorsese wrote about, Gray's New York is appropriately represented by the morose and melancholy Phoenix, but the effect of the latter isn't any less affective than the former. If this really is Phoenix's last film (and I doubt that it is) then he's left us with one of his best performances. I've never been a huge fan of his, and quite honestly I've never understood what the big ado was about some of his earlier performances (Okay, I get it he's a method actor…but still…), but here he creates a character in Leonard that is all at once annoying and pathetic; he earns our pity but also our impatience with how he handled the relational situations that arise in his life.

Paltrow has never been better, either, and it's a shame that she won't be more recognized for her work here. Here's a performance of a character archetype we think we know (thirtysomething, lawyer assistant by day, party girl by night, unsure and unlucky in love), a woman who sleeps with a married man from her office, a man who has a family but still pays for Michelle's apartment, conveniently located near his mothers house (the perfect alibi). But watch the way Paltrow plays Michelle. This isn't someone who is just interested in having things paid for her, she seems to sincerely love this man, and when a big decision arises in the film her decision doesn't seem based solely on monetary reasons, but there's a hint of something in her performance where she understands the implications her choice may have on her job and her future. Love equating to happiness (and subsequently that being all you need to survive) is an antiquated notion, and even though Michelle entertains the notion with Leonard, reality brings the reverie to a thud, and the ramifications are poignant and heartbreaking in a scene that Paltrow just absolutely hits out of the park. No grandstanding, no playing for big emotions; just honest, truthful acting, and that's one of the rarest things you'll find in a melodrama.

Gray has finally made the movie I think I've always seen in him. He's tried his hand at different types of gangster films, The Yards and We Own the Night (both starring Phoenix), but they just never felt like complete films. With Two Lovers he creates a sad, contemplative, realistic film that evokes a mood that stays with you for days. It's a film that I saw in the theater, and misinterpreted its foreboding themes as plodding, sorta-good ideas. However, recently viewing it on DVD has completely changed my mind.

Gray's film ends with a scene of sadness followed by a scene of happiness. Whether that happiness is genuine and longstanding Gray leaves up to the viewer, but what's so right about the end of the film is the way it makes you feel as if you were looking at a snapshot of the moment (appropriate since Leonard is an amateur photographer). And in that moment there is happiness, whether or not it's sustained is irrelevant; however, it's safe to say based on what we've seen from Leonard that this snapshot of happiness won't last long. But that's what I loved about the final moments of the film, the fact that Gray had the guts to end his film truthfully, and that's all I ask for in a movie.


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