In James Gray’s absorbing, character-driven TWO LOVERS, Joaquin Phoenix gives a heartbreaking performance as Leonard Kraditor, a somewhat damaged guy living with his parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Phoenix is here reteamed with Gray, with whom he made THE YARDS and WE OWN THE NIGHT, and the director revels flavorfully in this particular neighborhood as vividly as he did in his striking debut film LITTLE ODESSA (1994).
Phoenix uses his physical looseness, improvisatory humor and undisguisable handsomeness to erase any pitiable sad sack elements about Leonard, even though he’s attempted suicide and been dumped for a very stupid reason by his fiancee. We’ve all known a Leonard in our lives – you know, the kind of undeniably attractive but depressed type, still mystifyingly living at home, sleeping all day, obviously hiding some tragic flaw, and Phoenix floods this archetype with astounding empathy and soulfulness. Small wonder that “loser” though Leonard may seem initially, true romance fills his soul, and he nonetheless has managed to capture the avid interest of those titular two lovers (Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinissa Shaw). Watch how he behaves in two very different, very New York settings here – a luxe restaurant and a trendy Chelsea club -in which he should be a fish out of water but isn’t. In both, he totally wins over all comers, charmingly proving that Leonard is far from any kind of a Paddy Chayefsky-Marty sad sack.
Of all the film actors of his generation, Phoenix has maintained a performance integrity so staunchly vital that when it comes down to picking a movie to see, just based on who’s in it, I’ve always said, “Gimme the Wok!” If he does indeed retire from acting to pursue music as has been written, TWO LOVERS is one pretty terrific swan song for him.