Watching Joaquin Phoenix in Two Lovers made me wish he would go to the barber, get a shave and stop his infantile flirtation with becoming the new Vanilla Ice and get back to doing what he does best—create interesting, layered characters for the big screen. In Two Lovers, which Phoenix claims will be his last film, he hands in a towering performance that is simultaneously quietly intense and tortured.
Two Lovers is set in Brighton Beach, a small community on Coney Island, New York. Phoenix is Leonard, a man left devastated by a recent break-up. He’s moved back into his parent’s home and is working at the family dry cleaning business. He lives a life of quiet desperation until his matchmaker parents try and set him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the pretty daughter of a business associate. She becomes love number one. That same week he has a chance encounter with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), his beautiful, but damaged upstairs neighbor. She becomes love number two, and complicates Leonard’s already complex emotional life.
Two Lovers is a deliberately paced film filled with rich, interesting performances. Phoenix subtlety gives Leonard a full inner life as his bi-polar character swings from high points to low. It’s a quietly riveting performance and one of the best so far this year.
Paltrow redeems herself after her dull work in Iron Man. She brings the beautiful and tragic Michelle to vivid life, playing her as a woman blinded by her need to be accepted by men.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent and well cast. Vinessa Shaw as the nurturing Sandra takes the least interesting of the three main roles and creates a fully rounded and appealing character, while Isabella Rossellini and Moni Monoshov fill every frame they appear in with parental warmth.
Two Lovers moves slowly—one critic prescribed it as a “non-addictive, non-chemical cure for insomnia”—but for those willing to stay with the film’s reflective pace there are rewards.