Someone should sue Lionsgate under the trade descriptions act for this pitiful excuse for a movie. Firstly, there is only one lover in this film and two poorly scripted ‘emotionally damaged’ people who are incapable of love.
Secondly, the title makes it sound like it’ll be a raunchy movie. Granted Gwyneth Paltrow inexplicably shoves one boob against a window in one scene, and there are a couple of crappy 30-second sex scenes (it makes Joaquin Phoenix look shit in bed) but there are many more unnecessarily boring scenes of the characters sending text messages or making phone calls on their mobiles! I began to suspect those guys from the Orange cinema ads got to the filmmaker (do you get those ‘don’t let a mobile ruin your movie’ ads in the States?)
The worst thing about this movie is that I KNOW it will end up being critically acclaimed. It has Dr. Freakout himself, the man with the beard and the tortured soul, Joaquin Phoenix, and is written and directed by James Gray. It’s also a pile of existential bullshit that a lot of us folk who write about film get off on (I would include myself completely within that category). But the bottom line is that this film does not support the weight of the themes it claims to deal with.
Manic depressive Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) is presented as a suicidal loser. This is established by a single scene at the start when he climbs into a dock to drown himself, only to call for help about 30 seconds after he LOWERS HIMSELF into the water! His frustration with life is meant to be expressed through his love of photography, a symbolic detachment from and loving observation of the world. Yet our experience of his passion for photography is limited to a small box of images we see only briefly and a jaunt as a Bar-mitzvah photographer.
Aside from details like this, there is the glaring fact that manic depression (or bi-polar disorder) doesn’t work the way Gray presents it. Leonard is generally depressed, but susceptible to getting over-excited. This amounts to the false, romanticised, Byronic myth that is so often perpetuated. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with extreme characters (they’re pretty useful to make films interesting!) but to falsely pass this off as a real illness is just unnecessary. Similarly his love obsession Michelle Rausch (Paltrow) is made to seem self-destructive by showing her taking drugs.
Although unnecessary, Gray’s deployment of ‘manic depression’ and drug use as his artistic playthings takes us to the real reason that this film sucks. The manic depression, the dockside leap, photography, nostalgic decor, these are all lazy and overused signifiers that have been used as a substitute for genuine depth of character.
This is not to say Two Lovers has no powerful scenes, it has several. And in fairness to Phoenix and Paltrow, they both throw themselves wholeheartedly into the roles. Their passion is clear and it really pays off in a couple of scenes. But more often, and this is what I suspect critics will ignore, these moments are unconnected, hollow and heavily staged sequences that are loosely threaded together by phone calls and text messages. The events that occur are not explained and do not feel right. Michelle declares that she feels like Leonard is her brother after like 2 minutes of screen time and one conversation for God’s sake!
Even more underdeveloped is the relationship between Leonard and his second ‘lover’ Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Whilst we are made to believe that Sandra is this understanding person attracted to this confused and vulnerable artist that Leonard is supposed to be, we are never really drawn into his love for Sandra. This failing seriously damages the potential of the film to be a serious look at a man torn between two lovers.
So please, don’t be fooled by this. It’s all showboating scenes, pretentious ideals and NO realism whatsoever.
Two Lovers is on limited U.K. release from today!
This article was first posted on March 27, 2009