Parental Control: Isabella Rossellini comforts her bereft son.
The title of Two Lovers is technically accurate, but a little misleading. The movie's central character, an aimless and troubled Brooklynite, does make love to two different women. But one of them could never be much more than a figment of his outer-borough imagination.
This mismatch drains some of the tension from director James Gray's antiromantic tale. While Two Lovers is solidly constructed and capably acted, its outcome is all too inevitable.
The first of Gray's dramas to forego guns (and his third to star Joaquin Phoenix), Two Lovers is set — like all of his other movies — in and around Brighton Beach, a multiethnic enclave he depicts as populated with gangsters, cops and emotionally boyish men.
Having recently attempted suicide, Leonard Kraditor (Phoenix) returns from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mild-mannered parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Mosonov). Leonard has notions of becoming a photographer, but for now he does deliveries for his father's dry cleaning shop.
Jews of Russian descent, the Kraditors are about to make an Old World deal: They will sell their business to the Cohens, who in exchange will wed their daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) to Leonard, and give their new son-in-law a job in the expanded operation.
Officially, it's up to the kids to decide if they want to marry, but the parents gently push. Sandra likes Leonard, who is less enthusiastic but too unmotivated to resist. Until, that is, he meets his new neighbor, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Wreathed in blonde hair, Michelle comes from another world entirely. She's been installed in Brighton Beach by her boss and lover, Ronald Blatt (the ever-ominous Elias Koteas). Ronald is married, and so has set Michelle up in an apartment near his mother's; his wife can hardly object, after all, if Ronald spends a lot of time in his mom's neighborhood.
A neglected mistress and a sometime drug user, Michelle clearly needs protecting; her woes inspire Leonard in a way that Sandra's affection does not, and he waits for Michelle to finally break with her lover. But it's clear that even if that moment arrives, it probably won't linger.
Paltrow offers a more frazzled version of her usual perkiness, while the attractive Shaw retreats into her role so effectively that she seems a little mousy. Phoenix also plays quieter than usual, mingling hurt and confusion, lust and gallantry.
There's something a bit worn about Gray's world, so it's surprising to learn — via a bar mitzvah cake — that his latest drama is set in 2008. Given vignettes of breakdancing, Brandy Alexanders and film photography, the vibe seems closer to the late 1980s, the period of Gray's 2007 film, We Own the Night.
In fact, Gray and co-writer Ric Menello were inspired by a tale from a century earlier: Dostoevsky's "White Nights." Don't expect Dostoevskyian passions, though. More rueful than explosive, Two Lovers takes a hushed path to its only plausible conclusion.