It’s hard to get much weirder or more disorienting than Joaquin Phoenix’s recent David Letterman appearance, in which he cowered beneath Grizzly Adams facial hair while confirming that he had abandoned acting forever in order to pursue a career in hip-hop. (All I could think of, I’m afraid, was the classic line “From now on, I want the name John Malkovich to be synonymous with puppets.”) But the movie he was ostensibly on the show to promote is nearly as bizarre, in its own resolutely mundane way. Granted, the basic story couldn’t be more familiar: Suicidally depressed after a broken engagement, Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) finds himself torn between the titular beauties, feelin’ like a fool. His concerned parents (Isabella Rossellini and Israeli actor Moni Moshonov), with whom he’s moved back in, have set him up with Sandra (Shaw), the hot-yet-sensible daughter of a business associate who plans to purchase the traditionally Jewish family’s dry-cleaning business. But while Leonard does connect with Sandra, he’s far more violently drawn to new neighbor Michelle (Paltrow), a shiksa goddess who can’t seem to extricate herself from an affair with a married man (Elias Koteas).
With its unapologetic melodrama and its evocatively rundown Brighton Beach milieu, Two Lovers looks on the surface like a throwback to the grungy working-class character studies that were prevalent in the early ’70s—moody films like Fat City and The King of Marvin Gardens. But writer-director James Gray (Little Odessa, We Own the Night) gives this potentially trite scenario an oddly stunted, almost dreamlike tone that somehow makes it feel close to epic. Emotions are volcanic, and yet the characters often sound and behave like pre-adolescents, to the point where you half-expect them to start passing each other notes at recess. Phoenix, in particular, pushes himself further into an exposed-nerve realm than he ever has before, which is saying a lot; watching this intense performance, at once mannered and desperately sincere, you can almost understand how he might feel too exhausted to ever attempt another. His work alone makes Two Lovers far more vital and intriguing than any of the recent Oscar nominees, and we can only hope that whatever aspiring MC found a portal into his body will vacate soon.