Two Lovers (2008)
Rated – R
Directed by James Gray
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
Two Lovers is an example for why I absolutely love well-made dramas. It’s a wonder why studios don’t push for these more since they’re inexpensive to make and contain layers of power, but I guess I can understand the limited audience who actually enjoy these type of films.
The movie evolves around Leonard (Phoenix), a troubled and sensitive middle-aged man looking for something in his life to change for the better. His tragic past resulted in suicidal tendencies that he supposedly passed. But it’s clear that he’s far from being happy.
Enter Sandra (Shaw), a pretty and loving woman who has expressed her interest in Leonard. She shows a concern to his evident depression and wants to help him get better. She is exactly the kind of girl that Leonard needs. On top of that, the idea of the two of them getting together is making both of their Jewish families overwhelmed with joy. But even though this seems like a good thing, Leonard still doesn’t smile.
Until he meets Michelle (Paltrow). Leonard is immediately fascinated by her beauty and adventurous personality. His first encounter with her was inviting her inside his apartment, saving her from one of her father’s fits. As one of his neighbors, she is easily accessible, which also affects Leonard as well. But one thing is clear, even before he got to know Michelle well, you knew he wanted everything to do with her.
This desire results in a lot of pain and trouble for Leonard. Her flirty and friendly personality misleads Leonard on until she spills the beans that she’s currently in a relationship with a married man. But as the good friend who is hoping for more, he is always there for Michelle no matter how inconvenient the situation. He’s there for her to talk to, to give advice to, to drive her to the hospital, stay by her side until she sleeps, and more. There’s something poetic about these two damaged individuals that makes you think they could heal each others’ wounds if they were just given a chance.
Towards the conclusion of the film there are some very touching moments between Leonard and his mother (Isabella Rossellini). The love Leonard has for his parents just shows how much love he has inside of him, begging to be released on someone he truly cares about. In this case, this woman is Michelle. And even with a better life with benefits staring right in his eyes with Sandra, he throws all his chips in and opts for the windy, unknown road.
Writer/director James Gray takes such a delicate love-triangle and allows the well-casted actors to shine in this film. There isn’t a moment that drags since you’re completely invested in the characters and the continuing plot. Joaquin Phoenix gives one of his purest performances of his career. And the two girls are such opposites that it makes for such a compelling argument. Paltrow’s Michelle is extremely needy and reckless, while Shaw’s Sandra notably soothes Leonard’s pain.
Two Lovers dives into and develops the theme of familiarity versus risk. Should one be content with the safe choice? Should one be willing to risk the comfortable choice for a possible better life… with a possible consequence of something worse? That’s really where the phrase “all or nothing” comes into play.
The plot isn’t thick at all and the pace could be tiring for some, but within every frame is an observation on how the characters act and react to each other. What they want is simple, but to achieve it is where the road is long.
I think the ending of the film will give everyone a different feeling. For me, it was a bittersweet conclusion. The way Leonard is willing to throw away everything to create a new and fresh life with the woman he loves displays the passion he has for Michelle. But inevitably, her chaotic lifestyle leaves him in the dust. I want to believe that Leonard and Michelle would’ve crashed and burned in the end, just to give a positive reinforcement that everything happens for a reason. The reason here is that Sandra is really the girl who was meant to save Leonard.