Tuesday, February 10, 2009

TWO LOVERS: James Gray's Valentine for thinking folk

Not perfect by a long shot, yet perfectly calibrated to offer viewers a love story with so many possible outcomes and interpre-tations that it should boggle your love-
sluiced mind, James Gray's unusual TWO LOVERS makes a fine Valentine's Day antidote to the likes of He's Just Not That Into You and so many other Hollywood ideas about, excuse the expression, "love."

On one level a rather ordinary love story about a guy torn between two women: one a pretty, loving and in-love-with-him local girl, the other a real "other," sporting a different class, religion, background, the works. Delve a little deeper, however, and you'll find that all three characters have major psychological problems that render their actions and decision-making highly suspect.

Gray, who earlier gave us Little Odessa, The Yards and We Own the Night, here turns his attention away from crime families and onto just family. It's a welcome change, so far as I am concerned. The co-writer (with Ric Menello) and director captures place and atmosphere (his usual Brooklyn) with his usual specificity and flair. All of it rings true, even if certain events seem sometimes rushed, other times too coincidental, in the typical pack-it-all-in movie manner.

The performances, however, are first-rate. Joaquin Phoenix is as good, and as different, as I have seen him in a long while, as the "hero" so desperate to be loved that he betrays everyone, especially himself. Gwyneth Paltrow, after her starry beginning career, continues to grow as an actress, choosing roles that expand her repertoire, even if her later films have not particularly clicked at the box-office. And Vinessa Shaw (shown above, with Phoenix), of last year's underseen Garden Party is utterly winning as the "good girl" who is fooling herself about love, just as are her compatriots.

Isabella Rossellini (shown in photo top, with Mr. Phoenix) and Moni Moshonov are quite good too, as our hero's parents. Rossellini's ultimate scene with her son is quietly extraordinary. Elias Koteas (shown above left, with Paltrow and Phoenix) makes yet another strong impression, and, as usual, I did not recognize the actor until I saw his name in the final credit roll. For versatility alone, not to mention consistently riveting work, this actor should win a slew of awards. Gray seems to use many of his actors again and again. Wise choice, as they are so very good: unusual enough to warrant watching -- and always completely believable.

The film's ending (not to worry: I will give nothing away) is unusual, too, as it should leave you with very mixed reactions. It's a love story, comedy and tragedy rolled into one, in which everything appears to work out for the best. Oh, really? You'll think about this film long after those credits have rolled.

Two Lovers
opens -- for Valentine's Day -- in theaters on Friday, January 13, and on VOD Monday, January 16th. From Magnolia Pictures.

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