This 2009 drama is loosely based on the Dostoevsky short story, White Nights and is directed by James Gunn, reteaming the director with his frequent collaborator, muse I would dare say, Joaquin Phoenix. Out of the four films James has directed, Joaquin has appeared in 3, The Yards, We Own the Night and this film. Anyway, Two Lovers takes place in Brighton Beach, NY and is the story of Leonard Kraditor (played by Phoenix), a lost soul who when not fighting off bouts of depression finds himself torn between two woman, the kind and normal woman his family loves, Sandra (played by Vinessa Shaw) and the volatile and destructive blond neighbor Michelle (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). Will Leonard choose a normal life with Sandra, or will Michelle lead him down the path of destruction?
If I had to say one thing about Two Lovers, I would say that it’s an old-fashioned love story with high melodrama, a film that portrays the reality on the concept of love. I mean unlike how Hollywood wants to condition us, love is not epic, transient and tidy. The person you love doesn’t always reciprocate, and the feeling of love does not move mountains our change the tide of history. Love is chaotic. It’s a game of chance, of regret, of passion. It’s one of the rare feelings that we rarely have any control over, one that leads people down dark paths, and sometimes their own destruction. It’s messy, and frankly, it’s just too real. And that’s how Two Lovers felt to me, a modest film with large and intense feeling, the melodrama was in full swing, and it just felt scary it’s so real.
As I’ve stated, Two Lovers is an old-school drama, and that old school charm is what helps and hurts the film for me. On the one hand, it’s damn refreshing to see a throwback like this. Where love wasn’t just from the heart, but also of the mind, where the concept was about choices rather than destiny. However, on the other hand the movie is pretty slow moving. For a 109 minute film, it felt like 2 and a half hours. I’m not saying this is all bad, but some parts really drag out and when the melodrama hits, my god does it hit. I was half expecting an old sweeping Hollywood score to play along with the escalating emotions and half-truths, but there is no music because this is reality. And while the film did drag on at parts, I have to commend the filmmakers for throwing away expediency for a sense of realism, of authenticity. However, maybe that’s why this film feels a little too sincere with its feelings. It wants everyone to be happy and that sincerity is at the cost of Two Lovers being a better film.
The acting is fantastic in this movie. Phoenix plays the shattered man so well, because if you look at his personal life, it’s like he’s not acting. But yeah, Phoenix does a great job playing a dreamer living in his own world of crushed dreams. However I will say this, now I know this is how the character of Leonard is supposed to be, but when Phoenix mumbles some of his lines, its hard hearing what he says. He doesn’t have a voice that works well with mumbling. And Vinessa Shaw and Gwyneth Paltrow as the two women are picture perfect here. Vinessa is great as the kind Sandra. You can feel the love she has for Leonard, and the quiet beauty that surrounds her. And Paltrow as Michelle is just crazy. She’s an awful human being, that doesn’t realize her own destructiveness because she’s so selfish. Paltrow sells it and you buy the lemonade. Great performances all around, powerful yet restrained.
However the movie does pose the proverbial what came first, the chicken or the egg question. Here the question is one that many if not all have faced at one point, is it better to love or be loved? Do you go after the one who loves you or the one that you love? It’s a tough question with no true answer. Even in this movie, should Leonard go for Sandra, the woman who obviously loves him and would lead him to a better life, or Michelle, the woman he loves but who would rather be chased than be caught? I mean even if he does choose Sandra, will he truly be happy living a lie? And is a lie better than a heartbreaking truth? There are a lot of questions posed during this movie, and what I like so much about Two Lovers is that the questions aren’t easily answered, and for the most part there is no right answer.
Like I said before, Two Lovers is loosely based on the Dostoevsky short story White Nights. It varies at key parts, but the feeling of isolation, the feeling of abandonment permeates that story just as it permeates this film. Seriously, if you like Two Lovers read White Nights, and if you think Phoenix’s Leonard is a mess of a human being, check out Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator. Anyway, yeah I wasn’t too sure what rating to give Two Lovers. It’s refreshing yet the story can feel cumbersome at times. Okay so yeah, I give this a dvd/matinee rating. I won’t go into the ending because I don’t want to spoil it, but I think the ending is just one of the best endings I’ve seen in a long time, picture perfect and one that can be interpreted in so many ways.