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Two Lovers

Movie Review


Published March 11, 2009 at 7:25 a.m.

Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most gifted actors of his generation, has arrived at a pivotal juncture in his career: the end of it. Or so he would have us believe. He’s announced that Two Lovers will be his final film. That he’s transitioning to a career as a rapper. He’s grown a long beard and done interviews — such as that infamous one on “Letterman” — that suggest he’s suffered a nervous breakdown. All of which would make for a tragic Hollywood train wreck if it weren’t a practical joke.

Not a particularly amusing one, but a put-on nonetheless. Tip-off number one: Phoenix is filming the prank. He’s hired Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, to follow him around, ostensibly for the purpose of creating a documentary lampooning entertainment-industry hubris. Tip-off number two: An unnamed friend conveniently “leaked” the following to Entertainment Weekly: “It’s an art project for him. He’s going full out. He’s probably told his reps that he’s quit acting. Joaquin is very smart. This is very conscious. He has a huge degree of control.”

And, in fact, Phoenix’s reps are playing along as if they’ve been punk’d. His publicist, Susan Patricola, told MTV News that “the transition from one career to another is never seamless. It should come as no surprise to anyone [considering] that Joaquin came from a musical family, in addition to winning a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Johnny Cash. He intends on exploring his musical interests despite speculative, negative or positive reactions.”

Of course, Patricola neglects to mention either Phoenix’s bizarro beard-and-shades makeover or his mumbly, borderline-comatose demeanor on “The Late Show.” Neither exactly screams hip-hop artist in training, though the whole business does smack of a foray into Andy Kaufman-style comedy. My theory, however, is that something entirely different is going on here.

There is indeed a method to Phoenix’s make-believe madness, in my humble opinion. It just doesn’t have anything to do with hip-hop music or documentaries. (Can you think of three people who’d pay to see a movie about the actor pursuing a rap career?) What we have here, I believe, is much less than meets the eye. It’s nothing more than a movie star doing what movie stars always do: making the rounds to promote his latest project — albeit a tad more conceptually than most.

And so we come to Two Lovers, the story of a mumbly Brooklyn oddball named Leonard, son of a dry cleaner, who has had a nervous breakdown and dabbled in writing and singing rap. He even gives a brief performance in one scene.

So, in essence, Phoenix’s recent antics may be viewed as a walking, talking trailer for his third collaboration with writer-director James Gray (after The Yards and We Own the Night). If I’m right, it ranks with the most intriguing promotional stunts in film history. If I’m wrong, well, I don’t even want to think about it. And don’t get any funny ideas about sending me his CD on my birthday. Please.

This is a gentle, understated, character-driven piece that has more in common with European romantic dramas than those generally made in this country. The narrative concerns Leonard’s pharmaceutically treated instability. (Read 10 reviews and you’ll see 10 different psychological conditions attributed to the character, but his problem is never specifically identified in the script.) Whatever the issue, it complicates Leonard’s efforts to distinguish between the true love offered by a caring, young Jewish woman (Vinessa Shaw), whose family is about to merge its dry-cleaning business with his family’s; and the obviously bogus illusion of bliss proffered by a self-loathing and drug-abusing — though babelicious — shiksa played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Many of the picture’s most endearing elements have little or nothing to do with Phoenix. Particularly well done, for example, are the scenes depicting the growing closeness between the two families. I can’t remember the last time I saw Jewish parents portrayed in a motion picture with such warmth. In the hands of too many writers, every Jewish mother is a joke waiting to happen, but here Isabella Rossellini is a model of maternal tenderness and empathy.

I’d have preferred to spend more of the film’s 108 minutes with the parents and less with Leonard — who, to be frank, presents as rather a dull boy. Certainly, the character is far too stunted to merit in real life anything approaching the level of female attention lavished on him here. The movie benefits from a powerful sense of place and a number of nicely observed moments, but I have to say it suffers from a serious case of We Can See What’s Coming From a Mile Away.

“One of the best films of the year,” reviewers began raving roughly five weeks into 2009. Compared with what — The Pink Panther 2? Fired Up? OK, one of the best films about dry cleaners, sure. Any more glowing assessment is as misleading as it is premature.