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Leonard, a charismatic but troubled young man, moves back into his childhood home following a recent heartbreak. While recovering under the watchful eye of his parents, Leonard meets two women in quick succession: Michelle, a mysterious and beautiful neighbor who is exotic and out-of-place in Leonard's staid world, and Sandra, the lovely and caring daughter of a businessman who is buying out his family's dry-cleaning business. Leonard becomes deeply infatuated by Michelle, who seems poised to fall for him, but is having a self-destructive affair with a married man. At the same time, mounting pressure from his family pushes him towards committing to Sandra. Leonard is forced to make an impossible decision - between the impetuousness of desire and the comfort of love - or risk falling back into the darkness that nearly killed him.
For more about Two Lovers and the Two Lovers Blu-ray release, see Two Lovers Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on July 9, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Elias Koteas, Moni Moshonov
Director: James Gray
» See full cast & crew
Two Lovers Blu-ray Review
Where have you gone, Joaquin Phoenix?
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, July 9, 2009
Okay, Joaquin, the jig is up. You can ditch the sunglasses and take a razor to that beard. You hoodwinked Hollywood, point proved. Casey Affleck, you too, come on, put down the camcorder and confess. This actor turned rapper shtick is just a performance piece for a forthcoming mockumentary, right? You're challenging notions of celebrity and talent in an industry that loves a good downfall, and then, like a phoenix, you'll rise from the ashes of your acting career and have a good long laugh, correct? Well, alright, get to it. Your infamous turn on Letterman, to promote your final actor's gig, Two Lovers, fueled the gossip mill for a week or so, but it left the film—a good, quiet film—in the lurch, overshadowed by your Jim Morrison on smack appearance and gum-chewing antics. I have a feeling director James Grey was in on this—hoping it might spur interest in the film—but if not, I'm sure you've got some explaining to do. Just so you know, your performance in Two Lovers was superb, and we're all waiting for you to put your ample talents back to use.
It is a shame that Two Lovers slipped beneath the cinematic waves earlier this year, receiving only limited theatrical release. Granted, this isn't the sort of film that produces big box office numbers or engenders mass audience response. It's certainly a rarity in American cinema— a film that treats love without schmaltzy, overblown sentiment and carries itself with an almost European sense of pacing and restraint. Though there's plenty of impetuousness, Two Lovers is thankfully light on melodrama and the emotion within the piece seems earned, grounded in the mental complexities of its characters.
The film opens with Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) jumping off a bridge and attempting to drown himself. It's not a big, teary-eyed production; he just plunges in, letting himself sink to the bottom. He's buoyed back to the surface, however, by a fleeting image of his ex-fiancé, and wetly trudges home to his parent's apartment in the largely Jewish Brighton Beach neighborhood. It's clear that he's tried stunts like this before, indeed, he's staying with his folks so that they can keep an eye on him. His mother Ruth (Isabella Rosellini) is the opposite of the derogatory, overbearing Jewish mother archetype; she's protective, yes, but there's a tenderness in Rosellini's performance that plays beautifully against stereotype. Leonard's father Reuben (Moni Moshonov) owns a dry-cleaning shop, and on the night of the suicide attempt, he invites potential business partner Michael Cohen (Bob Ari) and his family over for dinner. The intent is clear—to merge their two businesses and hook Leonard up with Michael's daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw).
This kind of marriage-based alliance may smack of medieval princess swapping, but this is neither family's conscious intent—not at first anyway. And the two heirs to the laundry kingdom do have a quiet chemistry. Sandra sees Leonard as a cracked and fragile vessel, something to fix, and Vinessa Shaw (Eyes Wide Shut) imbues her role with a safe and humble goodness. We feel for her as she extends the hope of normalcy to Leonard, only to be stood up when his interests drift to Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), the dysfunctional girl next door.
Paltrow, for whatever reason, has taken fiery flak attacks from critics lately, who are perhaps wary of her sudden motherly plainness or her attempts—like Joaquin's—to break into other arenas besides acting. Her rather innocuous lifestyle website GOOP (yes, bad name, but still) has made her a kind of ho-hum joke among a certain sub-set of cultural tastemakers. Gwyneth's recent return to the screen, however, after a lengthy maternity leave, is proof positive that she still has the chops to handle weighty, dramatically complex roles. In Two Lovers she plays Michelle, an emotionally manipulative woman with daddy issues who is nearly as pained and uncertain as Phoenix's Leonard. This seems to be why Leonard falls for her, and the two characters are thematic parallels in a sense, both sneaking around behind the authority figures in their lives. She's dating a married man who keeps promising to leave his wife, and though she has no romantic interest in Leonard, she strings him along, using him as her emotional baggage handler.
The film's abrupt twist ending can be seen from a mile off—you could probably guess what happens without even seeing the film—but it's nevertheless affecting and harsh, particularly before moving Phoenix's character in a positive, more stable direction. Two Lovers isn't exactly hopeful, but it does treat love and infatuation realistically, as absurd conditions that often override reason. The film also has a good handle on Leonard's bi-polar syndrome, never letting it overwhelm the plot, but simply allowing his varying emotional states to bring a fine dimensionality to the character. And Joaquin Phoenix works wonders with this role. There's an almost physical weight on his shoulders, as if an albatross of dejection was hung around his neck. He is, by turns, childish, charming, bumbling, and confident, a man separated from his surroundings and at home only in his art. It's fitting that Leonard is an aspiring photographer—he sees life through a distancing lens—and even more telling is the fact that he prefers landscapes, devoid of people. When he hesitantly agrees to shoot the bat mitzvah of Sandra's younger brother, it suggests a reluctant willingness on Leonard's part to open up to the world around him.
Director James Grey (We Own the Night) sculpts the proceedings with a fine dramatic chisel, and the resultant work, while no masterpiece, is detailed and assured. Set between Thanksgiving and New Years, there's a certain haunted, autumnal heaviness at play, and the whole film aches with loss and misguided affections. Unfortunately, and despite some strong performances, Two Lovers will most likely be relegated to the lowly status of 2009's most overlooked drama, thanks in part to the media circus surrounding Joaquin's less-than-convincing transformation.
Two Lovers Blu-ray, Video Quality
Two Lovers leaps onto Blu-ray with a 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer that has a few issues but otherwise serves the film relatively well. As the story is set during fall, the colors are appropriately autumnal and muted, presenting a dreary palette that suits the film's hushed emotional core. Clarity is good but not great, as a thick speckling of grain—noticeable but not overly distracting—sometimes keeps the image from being as sharp and clear as it could be. Black levels are mostly deep, but crush is an occasional problem, and there are a few instances of intense contrast wavering that pull your eyes from the focus of the scene and toward the throbbing flicker of the background. Skin tones can veer toward the yellowish end of the spectrum, but this is an effect of the sometimes-moody lighting. Overall, the transfer never offers any stunning HD moments, but this suits the subdued and unobtrusive nature of the film.
Two Lovers Blu-ray, Audio Quality
With a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track, Two Lovers can bring the goods when it needs to, but this is, admittedly, not so often. The film is quiet and dialogue-heavy, and the voices are full and clearly articulated, though Phoenix's deep intonations can occasionally be muddled in the mix. Surround channels are used subtly and predictably for the score and environmental ambience, but they offer up few discrete effects. The only time the soundstage feels really full is during the boisterous bump and grind of the club scene. Still, there's some nice sound design that accentuates Leonard's loneliness, particularly when he's delivering dry cleaning and the bustling ambience of the city streets drops out to leave him alone with his thoughts. Two Lovers is a somber audio affair, but this track handles the sparseness well.
Two Lovers Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Behind the Scenes (SD, 7:04)
This is an average and obligatory behind the scenes feature that offers little insight into film. Save your time and just listen to James Grey's excellent commentary track.
HDNet: A Look at Two Lovers (SD, 4:32)
Why a featurette from HDNet is in standard def, I'm not quite sure. Like the "Behind the Scenes" bit, this "look" doesn't amount to much, but we do get to see a wacko-looking Joaquin Phoenix mumble, "it's the last film I'm in."
Commentary by Director James Grey
Grey's Joaquin Phoenix impersonation is worth a listen alone, but this track is surprisingly brisk and full of insights, not only into the technical aspects of filming, but also the philosophical underpinnings of Two Lovers and the thought that went into the casting and characters. If you enjoy the film, this track is a must-listen.
Deleted Scenes (SD, 9:22) Three excised scenes are included, each introduced by text from director James Grey. The first two are fairly pedestrian conversations, but the final scene shows Leonard trailing Michelle to the hotel where she's about to break up with her boyfriend, and was cut because it made Leonard look too much like a stalker.
Photo Gallery (1080p)
Contains 32 stills.
Two Lovers Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Come on out Joaquin, it's okay, we'll forgive you. Just get back to acting, where you belong. Seriously, Phoenix, I've seen you rap, and you're no Grandmaster Flash. Two Lovers just hit Blu-ray, so you should check it out. It doesn't have the best AV presentation, and it really skimps on extras, but I think you'll be surprised by the film, and by your performance. Really man, you can act!
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