Review: Two Lovers is Easy to Love

"Two Lovers paints an imperfect but true portrait of love."


Another skin-crawling cinematic Threesome?

No, fortunately Joaquin Phoenix's alleged film career finale is far, far finer than that. And you won't need a shower afterward.

As the story unfolds, in silence, a solitary man strides along a pier, drops his dry cleaning and jumps over the side drifting down into the salty ocean. From that moment on it's clear Two Lovers is a film of depth, a movie that will take you somewhere you haven't been before. But despite its heart-throbbing entrance, it's not a moody drama, nor a romantic comedy. It's neither of those while still a complex churn of those three elements -- drama, romance and comedy -- which subtly surface, but are still crackling, electric, alive.

The apex of Two Lovers' love triangle is Leonard, a depressed, bipolar bachelor on the mend from a broken engagement due to genetic incompatibility. To tame his suicidal tendencies, he's temporarily moved back in with his Jewish parents in Brighton Beach where he divides his days as an aspiring photographer and part-time help at the family dry cleaning biz. At his lowest emotional ebb Leonard's wryly honest and sincere. At higher elevations his infectious exuberance, childish clownishness and big-hearted passion border on Rain Man (or stalker). Though, somehow, Leonard reels himself back in just in time to be sweet and even oddly sexy.

Hoping to draw out his lighter half, his concerned parents try to pair Leonard with a nice Jewish girl, the daughter of his father's potential business partner. Caring and curvaceous, the lovely Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) lures Leonard out of his somber shell. His parents' plan seems to have worked perfectly -- until Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) moves into their building. From his bedroom window, Leonard can photograph or shout small talk to the bubbly beauty. But again, this isn't vacuous love juggling. It's more human, heart-tugging and hilarious than that. Michelle's a woman mucking through her own messy life, including an affair with a married man, which limits Leonard's adoration to the friend zone while he sensibly continues to court Sandra. The love twist isn't tawdry or intentionally duplicitous. And Leonard's needy and reckless, two-fold ardor is genuine.

Flaws and all, these are characters hard not to fall in love with. Both Paltrow and Phoenix put forth brilliant, soul-bearing performances free of self-indulgence and self-consciousness. Isabella Rossellini also charms as an ever-vigilant, stealthy mother-spy, routinely skulking outside her son's bedroom door.

There's also no end to the abundance of awkwardly funny moments including Leonard busting up a nightclub's disco floor with his dorky yet bewilderingly athletic hip-hop moves. (Perhaps practice for Phoenix's new career?) And then there's the most romantic line in a movie arguably aimed for the neurotic majority: "I'm f*cked up too. I will never walk away from you."

Two Lovers paints an imperfect but true portrait of love, as it is -- exhilarating, maddening, comic, and sometimes cruel. Applying the perfect play of light and shadow, this is the Renoir of romance films in Hollywood's overstuffed gallery of paint-by-number roms and rom-coms. Being swept off your feet by Two Lovers is easier than you think.

Grade: A