Joaquin Phoenix recently announced that he’s going to quit acting to pursue a career as a rap artist (yes, you read that right). If he sticks to his word (and I hope he doesn’t), Two Lovers, his third collaboration with writer/director James Gray, is his final film.
Phoenix is an interesting actor who can come across as either nerdy or suave, conveying cool confidence or awkward inadequacy, depending on the role. His prior two films for Gray were The Yards and We Own The Night, brooding character dramas about flawed individuals struggling to do right when every impulse guides them towards destruction. Gray’s films are heavy—be warned—but they’re honest, engrossing portraits of human nature.
In Two Lovers, Phoenix stars as Leonard, a lonely, depressed, bipolar single man who lives with his parents and gives in when they force him to date Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of a family friend. Even as Leonard falls for Sandra and courts her to the approval of his and her parents, he stumbles upon Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), a neighbor in his apartment complex with a troubled love life but an attractively wild personality. Leonard is torn between the sweet, loyal Sandra and the sexy, free-spirited, damaged goods dream girl Michelle. Rather than break it off with one of them, he pursues them both.
Gray’s elegant drama has the feel of a thriller and is yet another of his explorations of a character at a life-altering crossroads. Phoenix displays stunning vulnerability and naked honesty—you may want to slap him (or at least wonder why you’ve never had to choose between two gorgeous women), but he is somehow both believable and sympathetic. Paltrow and Shaw are both solid but supporting turns by Isabella Rossellini and Elias Koteas are even better and endow the love triangle with dramatic heft. The use of darkly shaded cinematography and somber music give the feel of a tragic, Russian literature-style romance.
Many will dislike the gloomy tone. On the other hand, it’s tough not to appreciate the weight and quality of the material. Gray captures the grueling, desperate pain of unrequited love; you feel this movie.
Phoenix’s career has been marked by daring choices. The best actors are the ones you can’t pin down to a certain role or genre, and Phoenix certainly fits the bill. If this really is his cinematic swan song, he certainly went out with a bang; this is one of his best performances. Still, the guy is young and richly talented. And really, the world already has too many white rappers. MTW
Screens Wednesday, March 11 at 5 & 7:30pm at the Castle Theater in Kahului as part of the Maui Film Festival’s Candlelight Cinema series. Call 572-3456 or visit mauifilmfestival.com for more info.