Remember a few months ago when, in the midst of promoting “Two Lovers,” Joaquin Phoenix made a bizarre appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman”? The shaggy-bearded actor stared off into the distance, gave monosyllabic answers, and acted like a full-on whack job. In all the fuss, Phoenix’s movie was forgotten. What a shame because “Two Lovers” is one of the best things he’s done.
Working once again with frequent collaborator James Gray (“The Yards,” “We Own the Night”), the actor stars as Leonard, a suicidal screw-up who moves back home with his folks (Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov) after being dumped by a girlfriend. He takes up with a Brighton Beach dry cleaner’s daughter (Vinessa Shaw) and, at the same time, gets pulled into the orbit of the needy paralegal (Gwyneth Paltrow) who lives across the hall.
In contrast to the other Phoenix/Gray films, the emphasis is on relationships rather than crime. There isn’t much of a plot as Leonard ping-pongs between a woman who wants to take care of him and a woman he wants to take care of. But you don’t need a plot when you have Phoenix’s face to stare at. His eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning when he’s in the vicinity of Paltrow, a woman so far out of his league she might as well be living on the moon.
Both cutting and gentle, Gray’s almost-love story doubles as a study in loneliness, family politics, and the rush of romance. “Two Lovers” might have gotten lost at the box office, but its intimate storytelling and authentic emotions deserve a second chance on DVD.
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[Amy Longsdorf’s entertainment coverage has appeared in “Blender,” “People,” the “Chicago Tribune,” the “Toronto Star,” and “Newsday.” She doesn’t want to imagine a world without Preston Sturges movies, Stax singles, and the music of Bob Marley.]