Friday, March 06, 2009

Two Lovers

One time, when being introduced to other people at a Chlotrudis outing, I was described as being a film critic at heart who works as a computer programmer to pay the bills. I didn't object, but I think that slights how truly left-brained I am: Would someone who was a film critic have decided to compare an indie romance drama to an insoluble problem of Newtonian physics?

Two Lovers

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Two Lovers is the sort of movie that can drive a single man batty. After all, the vast majority are not mentally ill mumblers who live with our parents, and yet it takes us a great deal of effort to find ourselves involved with even one girl who looks like Vinesssa Shaw or Gwyneth Paltrow. Two in the same day, more or less because of messing things up enough to have had to move back in with the 'rents? An insult to non-screw-ups everywhere!

Granted, Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) isn't entirely to blame; his engagement fell apart when he and his fiancée found out they both carried a recessive gene, and any children they had would be unlikely to live a year. He's getting better; his suicide attempt at the start of the movie isn't nearly as heartfelt as the one which landed him in a psychiatric hospital. Now, aging parents Reuben (Moni Moshonov) and Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) are planning to sell their dry-cleaning business to Michael Cohen (Bob Ari), as well as set him up with Cohen's daughter Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Of course, before Leonard can meet Sandra, he runs into a new neighbor, Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), the beautiful but occasionally unstable mistress of Ronald Blatt (Elias Koteas).

It's not even necessary to meet Sandra to see the roles that everyone is going to play: Michelle is the alluring choice filled with uncertainty; Sandra the traditional one who has just about zero wrong with her but does not particularly excite Leonard (a female Baxter, if you remember that movie). Leonard's parents are well-meaning but, like all Jewish movie parents, a little too involved. Blatt is the man who doesn't marry the girl whom the man doesn't marry. Leonard has a passion outside the dry-cleaning business to make him look like more than meets the eye, in this case photography.

The three-body gravitational problem may remain intractable in real life, but in the movies, you can predict their paths of this group with uncanny precision. Maybe not from the very beginning, but what will happen in the next fifteen or twenty minutes is generally what a person would expect from having seen other movies and recognizing that Two Lovers is not a romantic comedy. Neither the Brighton Beach setting nor any of the characters are sufficiently unique to send the story in unexpected directions.

Worse than that, they're not interesting enough to make watching them go through the motions particularly worthwhile. Leonard's story is sad, sure, but Phoenix plays him as a mere lump of wallowing misery, mumbling and self-effacing enough to keep the audience from having much connection with him at all. He's at least got a personality, though; Vinessa Shaw is given close to nothing to work with. We know that Sandra is attracted to Leonard from how she saw him in a good moment once, and that she's self-aware enough to recognize that she could choose from a large pool of men, because she tells us, but she's otherwise a blank. Shaw makes her pleasant enough, sympathetic as the only honest and forthright person in the triangle, and hints that she has a life exterior to the movie, which is probably all that can be expected of her. Michelle is less brainy than Paltrow's usual characters, but she's still predictably fragile. It's a well-honed performance, but one we've seen before.

All three are fairly passive characters, and maybe that's the point: Like in the three-body gravitational problem, it may not be possible to calculate exactly how they'll attract each other and perturb their respective paths, but they're still affected by the rules of nature. The same circumstances will give the same results barring an outside force, and this movie's got no outside forces to supply. Director James Gray keeps things moving smoothly enough - the movie doesn't succumb to dead spots, and even the odd moment when Leonard is suddenly charming enough to give us some idea what Sandra would see in him doesn't seem completely out of place. He and co-writer do fall victim to thinking some of their details are more interesting than they actually are, especially by falling into the trap of substituting interest in opera and photography for personality.

Of course, you could say the same about introducing physics into a simple movie review. That still doesn't change the fact that Two Lovers is a thoroughly Newtonian movie, following set, predictable paths, when it really could use an unpredictable quantum jolt.

Also at EFC, along with one other review.

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