Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) is adrift in life, occasionally suicidal, and trying to find his own path in life in a very uncertain time. His family’s Brighton Beach cleaners is always a possibility, especially now that his father has a prospective buyer for it who has a beautiful daughter (Vinessa Shaw, from Eyes Wide Shut) who finds him and his quirky ways adorable. Which would be perfect if it weren’t for Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow, here a shiksa shakti with some great moments and the first real role she’s had since The Royal Tenenbaums), the ‘beautiful, messed-up woman who doesn’t really know what she wants’ whose married lover has just set her up with the apartment across the courtyard from Leonard’s.
Before you know it, we’ve got our man Leonard torn between two women in the romantic equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru scenario: the magnetic, earthily graceful Sandra (Shaw), and Paltrow’s exciting, chaotic, passive aggressive waif Michelle. And if inordinate amounts of ink and pixels have been spilled over Phoenix’ antics on the David Letterman show and in his ‘career move’ to become a rapper, it’s shameful that nowhere near as much attention has been given how transcendently good he is in this film. He’s like a Lars von Trier lead in this film, and he even does his own breakdancing.
The film matches him every step of the way, with an expressive and moody use of the cinemascope frame to highlight both Leonard’s alienation from everyone around him and to demonstrate, without saying a word, how valuable private space is in New York City; it’s good to have a drama that understands the importance of its physical space without being show-offy about it. The whole concept of the family apartment may be lost on audiences with no familiarity with New York housing, but the history and detail put into that home is just beautiful. Also beautiful, as always, is Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother. Rosselini remains one of the most remarkable women alive right now, taking her place alongside Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, and Catherine Deneuve as a timeless icon of beauty- the natural woman at her most radiant and true.
Two Lovers is a treatise, of sorts, on the sadness of stasis. Viewing Sandra and Michelle as Scylla and Charybdis, we can empathize with Leonard and his own uncertainties. We understand the little tyrannies of others’ expectations just looking at the lines in Leonard’s face, and if this truly is Phoenix’ last performance as an actor, then it sets the bar incredibly high. The last scene says it all; a moment of tremendous beauty and joy, tied to an aching and pummeling sadness, where you see it all: joy built on a lie, hurt flinging itself desperately, needily toward hope.