Whether Joaquin Phoenix is suffering some kind of public breakdown or engaging in a prolonged piece of performance art, his weird-beard madness of the past several weeks faded from my radar as I marveled at his raw and touching performance in James Gray's outstanding "Two Lovers."
Should Phoenix retire from acting, the movie world would lose one of its most consistently inventive stars. This ranks with Phoenix's Oscar-nominated work in "Gladiator" and "Walk the Line," and when I line up those ridiculously different performances, I wonder how many actors could even think of doing all three roles.
Forget the uninspired title and the poster that hints at some kind of erotic love triangle. This is a gritty character study in which it always seems to be cloudy or raining, and everyone seems to be bracing for the next disappointment in life. They cling to each other out of equal parts love and desperation.
Phoenix is the aptly named Leonard (he's not a guy you'd ever call Lenny), a brooding, emotionally blocked man of about 30 who is still living with his Orthodox Jewish parents in Brooklyn. His room, cluttered to the max with objects of comfort, is his sanctuary. The lovely Vinessa Shaw gives a tender performance as Sandra, a beautiful girl who takes an immediate and deep liking to Leonard when their parents set them up. She sees flashes of his charm, his dark sex appeal, his potential. The fact that he's a fractured spirit only makes him more attractive to her. She wants to take care of him.
Leonard appreciates Sandra's affections and somewhere inside he knows she is a fantastic catch----but he's obsessed with Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of those gorgeous and spectacularly messed-up young women who can make men fall in love with them with a minimum of effort. Leonard sees his own redemption in Michelle, who's even more screwed up than he is. In his rescue fantasies, they'll run off together and they'll both be healed.
This is one of Paltrow's best performances in years. Michelle careens from sexy to manipulative to sweet to nearly tragic in her sadness. She's either the perfect counterpart to Leonard, or the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. Thanks to Gray's confident direction and his insightful screenplay (co-written with Ric Menello), and the blistering performances from Paltrow and Phoenix, their relationship is one of the most authentic and memorable I've seen in recent years.
"Two Lovers" has the right ending for this story. My only quibble is that a few things are spelled out when they could have been implied. But please don't miss this film. It deserves a better fate than to get lost in the dead of winter.