Phoenix Is for 'Lovers': Joaquin's Embraceable Exit

Joaquin Phoenix plays a confused young man who moves back in with his parents.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a confused young man who moves back in with his parents. (Magnolia Pictures Via Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 2009; Page C01

The question raised by "Two Lovers," James Gray's quiet, unadorned romantic drama starring Joaquin Phoenix, is whether seeing the movie is worth leaving the comfort of your sofa and wide-screen TV, where it's available on pay-per-view, and schlepping to your local theater. The answer hinges on the degree to which the viewer deems Phoenix's announcement of his retirement historic or just another publicity stunt.

Either way, "Two Lovers" reminds audiences of what a charismatic actor the movies would lose in Phoenix, who, when he made a notorious appearance with David Letterman recently, looked like a strung-out refugee from ZZ Top. In Gray's movie, Phoenix is his old, clean-shaven self as Leonard Kraditor, a troubled young man who's moved back in with his parents in Brighton Beach, N.Y. Torn between a gorgeous if emotionally wobbly shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw) whom his mom and dad are clearly crazy about, the sleepwalking Leonard ultimately has to decide which self to wake up: the romantic but doomed artist or the settled but thwarted family man.

Gray, best known for such gritty crime thrillers as "Little Odessa" and "The Yards" (which featured Phoenix in a breakout performance), exhibits a keen eye and ear for romance in "Two Lovers," which unfolds with unforced but propulsive tension. Not much seems to be going on until you realize -- say, during an awkward date when Leonard uncomfortably orders a brandy Alexander in a posh Manhattan restaurant -- that you're on the edge of your seat, hoping against hope that this lost young man won't get his heart stomped when The Girl in the Little Black Dress walks in.

Movies have visited this terrain before, from "The Graduate" to last year's wonderful "Momma's Man." By comparison, "Two Lovers" is more uneven. Even as a character meant to seem slightly exotic on Brooklyn's dingiest streets, Paltrow seems wildly out of place in a drama committed to un-starry realism. (Whether viewers can dispel the image of a still seductively beautiful Isabella Rossellini will dictate how they accept her as Leonard's worried, hovering mother.)

But for its occasional discordant notes, "Two Lovers" still has enormous value, if only to remind viewers that Phoenix, who has said he wants to pursue a hip-hop career, was an actor of tremendous gifts and wary physical grace. There are scenes on Leonard's rooftop that are so reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando that you half-expect Phoenix to begin tending a pigeon coop. If "Two Lovers" winds up being Phoenix's last movie, at least it offers posterity incontrovertible proof that, once, he was a contender.

Two Lovers (108 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity, sexuality and brief drug use.

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