Brooklyn Rules (Still): Forget the Letterman show – Joaquin Phoenix returns to form in Two Lovers.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
In Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, would-be comedian Rupert Pupkin explains why he kidnapped a late-night TV talk show host and usurped the show’s monologue, knowing for certain he would be caught and sent to prison: “Better to be king for a day than schmuck for a lifetime.” Rupert’s words came to mind while watching director James Gray’s Two Lovers, the oddly old-fashioned story of Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix), a contemporary man-child living under the thumb of his mother and father in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and his romantic dilemma, the sort that only happens in the movies.
As written by Gray and Ric Menello, Leonard is the sort of mid-20th century urban Jewish male, beloved of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and a host of other authors, whose life is a struggle between following his own destiny and obeying his smothering parents – played to the hilt by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov. Thirty-something Leonard, whose room in the family apartment looks as if it were decorated by Beaver Cleaver, works for his father at his dry cleaning shop, a go-fer job delivering clothes to customers. Leonard’s only personal outlet is photography, and he’s good at it. Old man Kraditor is about to sell the business to another dry-cleaning family who just happens to have an unmarried daughter Leonard’s age. So lonely, awkward, preoccupied Leonard gets fixed up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), a reasonably attractive but hopelessly dull woman whose favorite movie is The Sound of Music.
Then one day in the building hallway Leonard bumps into Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow). She’s the kind of trouble any single guy would love to get into – cute, blond, talkative, sexy clothes, footloose, not especially intelligent but who cares? They hit it off immediately, and something strange comes over Leonard. When he’s with Michelle he’s loquacious, witty, a party animal. She brings out the sexual animal in him, too, and encourages him, in her way, to glimpse his possibilities. The only obstacle is Michelle’s sugar daddy – she’s maintained in her apartment by a lawyer, her boss at a Manhattan law firm. But she’s tired of him, and maybe they can run away together to San Francisco after all. So the horns of Leonard’s dilemma are sexy bad girl Michelle, the West Coast, and a career in photography versus haimish Sandra with a life sentence in the Brooklyn dry cleaning biz attached – in other words, King for a Day or Schmuck for a Lifetime. Oh wait, did we mention that Leonard has a history of emotional problems, and that the movie opens with his latest unsuccessful suicide attempt, a leap off a pier into Sheepshead Bay?
Phoenix, Paltrow and Shaw work these out-of-date characters overtime, wringing out every ounce of pathos. Phoenix, Walk the Line notwithstanding, is a practiced hand at playing mixed-up guys (Reservation Road, The Village, Gladiator), and makes us care, a little, about a two-dimensional loser.
Paltrow’s Michelle hits that perfect combination of alley cat and shiksa love goddess – you should never leave your wallet in the room with her.
And Shaw, busy building a career in stuff like 3:10 to Yuma, nearly walks away with the movie as wallflower Sandra, who’s doing the very best she can.
The question is, what made the filmmakers come up with such a 1959 scenario? Better yet, how did they make this hoary plot so damned entertaining? Must be movie magic.
TWO LOVERS (3) Directed by James Gray. With Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov. R, 110 min. At Osio Cinemas.