Two Lovers Dir. James Gray

[Magnolia Pictures; 2009]

Some old codgers had convened in the restroom after a recent viewing of Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. Although they didn't appear to know each other, they were nonetheless engaged in a fiery, honest debate over the merits of Clint's self-sacrifice at the end of the film. Their post-screening barbershop banter was a welcome alternative to the cynical jabs and snarky late-nite jokes that annually greet awards-season contenders. Likewise, the sheer earnestness of Torino felt refreshing when juxtaposed with the self-congratulatory liberalism of this year's Best Picture nominees (and that may help explain why the film has outdrawn the Academy's choices at the box office). More importantly, it raises the question of whether or not a new cinematic genre has emerged in our post-economic collapse era -- films that reconfigure simplistic banality as a form of old-fashioned integrity.

If Two Lovers is any further indication, the answer is a resounding "yes." The film is just as weirdly anachronistic as Gran Torino, but also, in its own way, a lot weirder. For starters, there's the bluntly iconic title, which befittingly implies the type of pure, classical romance that is all but extinct in contemporary movie theaters. The lead roles are played by Joaquin Phoenix and Gwenyth Paltrow, who, respectively, abandoned acting in order to pursue a rap career and thought "Apple" was an appropriate name for a first-born child. Moreover, director James Gray claims that Two Lovers is loosely based on a Dostoyevsky (!) story, which he was drawn to because of its "direct assault on the subject of love." So clearly, there's some pretty weird shit goin' on here.

Gray uses Two Lovers as an opportunity to embrace clichés rather than avoid them. Phoenix portrays Leonard, a depressed, socially awkward ne'er-do-well who is forced to live with his parents and work in their laundromat after a botched suicide attempt. Despite having clearly hit a major dead end in his life, Leonard finds himself with not one but two gorgeous suitors in his life. The two lovers are played by Vinessa Shaw, the nice Jewish Girl who represents the security of a convenient marriage, and Gwenyth Paltrow, playing the self-destructive, wild ’n crazy blonde who represents the fantasy escape from a dull life (as well as major Shiksa appeal). This particular love triangle sounds way too familiar, but it serves the picture's goals.

The premise is tailor-made for the world Gray seeks to place his viewers in, as is the film's Brighton Beach setting. Two Lovers is handsomely made, beautifully photographed, and, for the most part, arresting. However, the content is painfully trite and frequently implausible -- it often plays out like a 12 year old's conception of romance. Although the vintage feel is warm and evocative, the stilted dialogue and some unbelievable developments unfortunately detract from the tone Gray has worked so hard to create. The disparity between form and content creates a weird disconnect, resulting in a film that toes the line between camp and art. Nonetheless, by merging the immersive with the inane, Two Lovers hints towards a bold new cinematic frontier. Let's just hope the revolution has a bit less of the latter.

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