DAVE DAVIES, host:
Actor Joaquin Phoenix recently surprised the world by announcing he was retiring from acting to become a rap musician. Then, while promoting his new film on "The Late Show with David Letterman," he squirmed, chewed gum and said almost nothing about the film or anything else. But what about that new film? "Two Lovers" is Phoenix's third with director James Gray. Set in Brooklyn, the film also stars Gwyneth Paltrow. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joaquin Phoenix prompted a lot of nasty speculation last week for his aggressively taciturn performance on "The Late Show with David Letterman," in which he wore a heavy beard and took his sweet time with his non-answers. Was he on drugs? Is he really giving up acting to be a rapper?
I thought it was obviously a stunt connected to a mock documentary he's allegedly making with his pal, Casey Affleck. And I have no problem with that. It made for better TV than another routine promo appearance. But couldn't Phoenix have done some promotion? At least made it seem as if he gave a hoot about a new movie he obviously put his heart into - James Gray's "Two Lovers"?
Phoenix has acted for Gray three times. The other films are "The Yards" and "We Own the Night," and each performance has been, along with "Walk the Line," a high-water mark in his career. "Two Lovers" deserved better. Phoenix's own performance deserved better. He's stupendous. He plays Leonard, a thirty-something depressive who, after a broken engagement, has moved back with his Jewish family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he works as a delivery boy for his dad's dry-cleaning store.
In the opening, he attempts suicide - he drops some dry-cleaning he's carrying and jumps off a footbridge. We see him underwater on the verge of drowning, and then he heads back to the surface and lurches home sopping wet. But there's an underwater quality to the whole performance. Phoenix has pudged himself up, and his words come out half-slurred, befogged, with no push. At dinner, he meets Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw, the daughter of his father's prospective business partner, and sitting with her in his bedroom he recognizes in their meeting a certain inevitability.
(Soundbite of movie "Two Lovers")
Ms. VINESSA SHAW: (As Sandra Cohen) You know, our parents wanted us to meet. Well, no. I have to tell you the truth. Actually, I wanted to meet you.
Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Hmm?
Ms. SHOW: (As Sandra Cohen) Yeah. I saw you at your parents' store, and I just - you were asking your mother to dance with you. It was very cute.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) It sounds like something I would do.
EDELSTEIN: Leonard seems likely to yield to the inevitable, but then in his apartment building, a woman backs into his line of sight and, hoo-boy, it's a shiksa goddess. It's Gwyneth Paltrow. And Leonard's attraction to the woman she plays, Michelle, is seismic.
(Soundbite of movie "Two Lovers")
(Soundbite of dog barking)
Unidentified Man: Michelle. Get back up here. Do not disrespect me.
Ms. GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Hi.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Hi.
Unidentified Man: Spoiled brat.
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Sorry.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) For what?
Unidentified Man: Don't think you're living up in (unintelligible).
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) My father, he's - he's a little crazy.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) I know it.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You OK?
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah.
Unidentified Man: Yeah, I can hear your talking. Who you talking to down there?
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) You live here, right?
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah, well, my parents do. I'm staying with them.
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Oh, right.
Unidentified Man: Michelle, come back here. Don't be like this.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You want to come in for a bit?
Unidentified Man: Honey, (unintelligible).
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah, maybe just - that'd be great. Just until he calms down, maybe. I don't want to like everybody to call the cops.
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah, it's... I'm Leonard.
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) I'm Michelle…
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You're Michelle…
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah...
Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah…
Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) (unintelligible).
EDELSTEIN: It's not her dad, it's her married lover she's dodging. And for much of the film, Leonard trails after the flighty Michelle and listens to her romantic woes while remaining half-heartedly involved with Sandra, the nice Jewish girl he's clearly supposed to marry. In outline, "Two Lovers" resembles the original "The Heartbreak Kid," but the social satire is absent, and so is the social climate. Leonard wants Michelle because she represents freedom from his prescribed destiny.
Director James Gray has a bit of a self-indulgent drama queen in him, but the worlds he creates have weight and texture. You understand why his heroes have such a hard time not going with the flow. Instead of shallow, overbearing parents, he gives us thoughtful and sensitive ones whose only fault is being too fearful for their son's happiness. Isabella Rossellini plays Leonard's mother, and because of who she is, you can't see her as one of those smothering, anti-life-force Jewish moms out of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Neil Simon. She's beautiful and cultured, and her love is selfless.
And Vinessa Shaw's Sandra, is domestic bliss on a platter. But Leonard, in spite of everything, wants the crazy blonde. Gwyneth Paltrow makes Michelle at once radiant and toxic, ditzy with a dangerous sense of entitlement. What makes her alluring is that we see her through Phoenix's yearning eyes as Leonard trails her and clutches at her hand. She's like an E.T. in a Spielberg movie. He thinks she can transport him out of his miserable underwater life to another realm. It's daft, but Phoenix makes those longings momentous. That's what's depressing about last week's TV appearance. On screen, Phoenix can make lack of direction fiercely poetic, but on "Letterman," it was only schtick.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our digital production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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