Most people desire only two things: security and attention. The two continually war over our hearts; on one end, there is the peaceful calm of security, bound by time and routine, by a lover reliable and devoted. On the other, there is the attention, that spatial leap, the risky rendezvous, the late-night reveries, always craving something less patient than the ticking clock.
And so it is with Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), the suicidal, bipolar, child-like wrecking ball that is the centerpiece of James Gray’s latest Brighton Breach exposé “Two Lovers.” Caught between two storms, one a slow rumble and the other a rapturous thunder, Leonard navigates his own madness and loneliness through the causeways of two equally alluring women.
Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw) is security; she wants to take care of Leonard and make love to him, because she knows well enough that she understands him. Sandra understands his hobby of photographing empty structures across the city, she understands his troubled, wrist-slitting and wayward past, and she gets his youthful exuberance as a child seeking simply to have fun.
But then there’s the other hand, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow) is attention; she pushes Leonard’s buttons, gets him riled up, and in a fit of rage, he is able to explain: “You’re as fucked up as me. That’s why I love you.”
Leonard is sure that he can change Michelle. He knows that she’s screwed up, and he finds excitement and entertainment in her chaotic lifestyle.
Leonard is his own worst enemy. He is too self-absorbed to realize that he needs someone to take care of him and provide routine and discipline. His life, like his photographs, moves scene to scene, never forming a continuous thread. Gwyneth is yet another photograph in his life, albeit one that consistently proves negative.
Director James Gray covers new material here but in familiar territory. His previous effort, the underrated “We Own the Night,” explored the urban decay of Brooklyn; this time, he ditches the violence and unpacks the equally destructive forces of love.
Gray’s films always reveal a masterful sense of place, and here he eloquently mimics changing character moods with his own filming. Cold, windy, rooftop sex is countered by warm bedroom antics, while the bump-and-hustle of Manhattan’s club scene is countered by desolate walks down the pier.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard with the utmost nuance and sincerity. His sheepish drawl and childlike mannerisms demand sympathy, while his swift changes in mood and energy demand intrigue.
Every one of Leonard’s movements rings true, from feverishly booking a flight for Michelle and skipping down the stairwell to boldly calling Sandra at dawn to arrange a weekend date. Phoenix’s performance helps propel the film from a decent romantic drama into a complex, memorable character study.
Ultimately, the film explores the idea that there is one woman with whom you are destined to share years, and there are some women with whom you are destined to share your days. Leonard represents a man who will despair quietly for the rest of his life, attempting to decide which is the better fate.