Writer-director James Gray’s Two Lovers opens with an attempted suicide, though one in which the emphasis should probably be placed on the first word of the phrase. Leonard Kraditor (an unbearded, relatively coherent Joaquin Phoenix) walks onto a Brighton Beach jetty at dusk, drops the dry-cleaning bag in his hand, and steps heavily into the Atlantic Ocean. But after a few moments of passive surrender to the depths, his autonomic nervous system kicks in--would that it had done this during that Letterman appearance--and he kicks back to the surface, where he’s pulled from the water by passersby.
The dripping Leonard slopes along home to his parents’ apartment, where his Jewish-immigrant mother (Isabella Rossellini) expresses concern--this hasn’t been his first go at self-annihilation. But Leonard reassures her vaguely: He fell in, he says, and “it’s not going to happen again. I’m fine.” Company is coming over, a somewhat wealthier Jewish couple who are buying the family’s dry-cleaning store to add to their small chain. They are bringing their daughter, too, the beautiful Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), and it soon becomes clear that all concerned would be pleased if she and Leonard hit it off romantically. They do, to a point, with Leonard taking Sandra to his chaotic bedroom to show her the black-and-white photos of storefronts that he shoots as a hobby. When she asks why he doesn’t photograph people, he replies defensively, “People look at them. They don’t have to be in them, too.”
The next day, Leonard meets Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a newly arrived tenant in the building, and he allows her to take brief refuge in his folks’ place from an angry relative. Her apartment, it turns out, is across the courtyard from his, visible from his bedroom. That night, he stares at her windows, his gaze a thread of longing hung across the empty space.
Its elements set in place, the film proceeds leisurely. Sandra pines for Leonard, who returns her affections intermittently. Leonard pines for Michelle, but she desires him as a friend, a brother, someone to offer advice on her relationship with Ronald (Elias Koteas), a married attorney in the city with whom she’s been having an affair: Does he really love her? Will he leave his family? Like Leonard, whose trial suicides were the result of a broken-off engagement, Michelle has her own hidden damages. Over dinner, Ronald the attorney asks Leonard to keep an eye out for signs that she might be “using” again.
In a typical Hollywood movie, it would be clear enough where this was all headed: an overdose, a suicide, an act of betrayal or revenge or murder, some explosion of cinematic crisis or catharsis. But Two Lovers is a film of unshowy originality, a reminder of just how formulaic the formulas have become. To a greater degree even than last fall’s Rachel Getting Married, it suggests that tragedy can lurk without ever pouncing. Leonard failing to take his medication, Michelle popping ecstasy before a night out--such events can stand on their own, without having to serve as precursors of a greater trauma. The slope is not always slippery.
Unlike most contemporary tales of love neglected, displaced, mistaken, Two Lovers is not a talky film. Characters do what they do, and what they do is often foolish. But its working-class characters have neither the inclination nor the vocabulary of self-analysis. (“I don’t read very much,” Michelle confesses shortly after meeting Leonard.) Director Gray, who co-wrote the script with Ric Menello, largely abstains from expository dialogue, necessitating that he show rather than tell. The result is a film full of simple scenes brimming with unspoken complications. Gray captures neatly, for instance, the contradictory textures of early infatuation, the alternation of the furtive and the magical, of feeling powerless and feeling capable of anything.
Paltrow plays Michelle as a slightly ditzy shiksa goddess, a sadder, less goofy Annie Hall. But there’s an element, too, of Stephanie from Saturday Night Fever, especially in the way Leonard looks at her. She is his opportunity for sociological transcendence, the girl whose cultured lover takes her to Manhattan restaurants and the Metropolitan Opera. Unlike Sandra, who promises Leonard a better version of the life he already knows, Michelle promises something else altogether, a whole universe beyond the confines of blue-collar Brooklyn.
Phoenix delivers a gentle, understated performance as the awkward Leonard. It is refreshing that, for all the character’s problems, this is the portrayal of a person, not a pathology. Yes, he’s troubled, and makes poor choices, but they are the kinds of poor choices people make every day. Leonard may be a fool, but he’s not a nut. And if he seems an unlikely repository for the romantic attentions of lovely Sandra and Michelle, well, such is the world of male writer-directors, in which good-hearted diamonds in the rough must choose between the Hollywood goddesses cast before their feet.
In its final third, as Two Lovers accelerates toward its finale, there are a few scenes--a carnal encounter on a rooftop, a conversation spied upon from behind a door--that feel rushed or contrived. But even if Gray’s story is in the end no more plausible than most, its implausibilities--in particular, the touching conclusion--tend to be fresh ones. Two Lovers is not a great film, but it is a good one, perhaps even a very good one, a quiet exploration of the malleability of affection, the seamless gear-shifting of which both heart and mind are capable, the ways in which, whether we are aware of it or not, we are the authors of our own happiness and sorrows.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.